All Things Being Equal: Under-Representation & the Duration Debate

Mar 11, 2015 5:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf discusses the topics of under-representation in study abroad and duration of programs. 

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We can all envisage a marvellously intense and powerful three-week or four-week study abroad program. That is precisely what CAPA’s Global Seminars intend. We can also envisage a superficial swing through stereotypes over the same time scale led (marginally) by a faculty member who may have a sketchy understanding of the realities of the environment.

In contrast, we can all envisage a semester-long program in which students engage with another environment intellectually and physically in ways that challenge and inspire them to explore new ideas. We can also envisage a semester-long program that achieves little other than an opportunity for students to enforce preconceptions and, on the way, have some enjoyable tourist moments with their chums.

In the worst scenarios the fault lies with the construction and implementation of the model. It is not an intrinsic characteristic but a failure of educational leadership and intellectual judgement. There is a simple qualitative spectrum along which all study abroad programs are located: at one end of the spectrum is the virtually worthless; at the other end, the profoundly impactful.


It would be misleading to characterize any model by the worst example of it in practice (or by the best). We would not, by way of illustration, judge television by reference to the Jerry Springer Show (however wonderful that might be). Reductive judgements about models are almost always likely to be based on suspect generalizations. Duration itself is no guarantee of quality. If it were, we would conclude, by analogy, that the best books are the thickest.

All things being equal however (but they aren’t), it is probable that there is some value in gestation (ask any foetus). If we compare a three-week model with a semester-long model, it is common sense to suppose that the longer duration is likely to offer more opportunities for impact and enlightenment than the shorter. If you are in an environment for a longer time you are obviously more likely to make mistakes (and learn from them), more likely to have meaningful encounters, more likely to connect the classroom and reading with the world outside. There are no guarantees that you will, but the odds are better. If there is value in process, then the longer the process the greater the likelihood that some kind of useful learning will occur. Simply if you are somewhere for a longer time you are more likely to get to know it in a less superficial way and that is probably of benefit (unless you are in Wolverhampton).

So, all things being equal we would probably recommend that students maximize benefit by maximizing duration. But the fact is that all things aren’t equal and, as Hamlet said, “there’s the rub”. (Hamlet is, of course, an example of a study abroad student who had particular re-entry difficulties on his enforced return from Wittenberg. He was, also, a Danish aristocrat who might not be considered typical --or even relevant-- in this context).


So, while duration alone is no guarantee of quality it is more likely to contain the potential for quality.  Thus, all things being equal, we would probably want our students (all of them) to have the maximum opportunity to gain the best learning experiences possible subject to all the restraints of which we are all very aware.

The fact that all things are not equal is a key constraint to any kind of participation of course. The degree to which things are not equal may be summarised as follows:

Students who study abroad are from a narrow spectrum of the total population. They are predominantly white females from highly educated professional families, majoring in the social sciences or humanities… Whether by their own choice or lack of encouragement to do so, there are fewer men, members of minority groups, students from nonprofessional and less-educated families… among undergraduates who study abroad.

Indeed there is nothing new in this analysis. It was cited by Johnnetta Cole at the 43rd CIEE conference. It is a succinct and precise summary of the current state of under-representation. It is also, shockingly, 25-years-old.


All things then are still not equal. Whether we like it or not all higher education is a market place. In global higher education the gap between the empowered and the disenfranchised is a large as ever; in a domestic context those inequalities are mirrored, perhaps less dramatically, but nevertheless apparently. The ultimate and utopian solution to inequality of opportunity is probably more to do with global political change than it is to anything we are likely to achieve unless we are inclined to man the barricades and lead the revolution against global capitalism. Absolute or “global” solutions are likely to be utopian and beyond our ineffective means. To impact upon US education abroad, efforts to make the student body more diverse are likely be conditional, relative, concrete and accumulative. If we seek to change the whole world, we are likely to fail; if we establish concrete and manageable targets, we are more likely to make some difference.

This is the context in which we have to consider the short-term/long-term scenario. If we broadly agree that, all things being equal, longer-term programs are likely to be more impactful, what is the implication of a strategy based on prioritising short-term programs as a mechanism to address under-representation? It may be an easier fix. By generating programs that are, in absolute terms, of lower cost, we can probably increase enrolment among groups traditionally under-represented. In this manner we might create statistics that demonstrate that we are increasing participation in study abroad. That is, in fact, what the field of study abroad has in a general context already done. It is, on one level, very welcome.

The ethical resonances with regards to under-represented groups are less comfortable. Implicitly, the second best option (better than nothing for sure) is identified as that which is most suited to a particular group of students whether you define them by color, gender, religion, race, region or whatever. I am aware that this is not the intention but it is an uncomfortable implication of prioritising short-term programs as a means of addressing a question of inequality and social injustice.


In the end, this is a question of justice. I have some sense of what it is to be part of a minority for whom higher education was a distant aspiration. I was lucky and gained access to what was in my youth an elite and exclusive system. My life was immeasurably enhanced by that and by international experience that followed. I would like others similarly to benefit.

I am proud to be part of CAPA and the community to which we belong because collectively we have a commitment to take some small steps on the rocky path to greater diversity. For many years, discussion of widening participation has been mired in high-flown rhetoric rather than action. Our obligation is to go beyond rhetoric. But we need to go forward without losing sight of the ethical imperative: to create equality of opportunity and equality of access to international programs. However well-intentioned assuming that a proliferation of short-term programs aimed at under-represented groups will meet that agenda is a fundamentally flawed strategy. It simply redefines inequality.

As a field in which cosmopolitanism and international values are implicitly embedded in a common ethical view, we need to be fully aware that increased diversity in the student body is a moral obligation. I believe that exclusion is a form of prejudice in action; inclusion is a form of natural justice. Striving, however imperfectly, for natural justice is, and must be, an urgent political and ethical imperative. It cannot be achieved by assuming that all things are equal.

Thanks Mike!

Read More From Dr. Michael Woolf

Topics: Study Abroad