Re-thinking the term “third-party provider”

You may have already read the brief written by Tony Ogden (now at Michigan State University) and published by AIEA last summer. However, if you haven’t, just below is an excerpt that contains interesting thoughts about working with organizations that provide programming or other services to universities and students in the realm of education abroad.

by Anthony C. Ogden, University of Kentucky, Summer 2015

AIEA Issue Brief

“Re-think the term ‘third party provider’
The term “third-party provider” has been a long-standing term commonly used to refer to education abroad provider organizations, but the term is misleading.The term implies that all provider organizations act as third-party agents neatly positioned between sending and receiving institutions. While many provider organizations facilitate direct enrollment, others provide all of their own academic programming and thus do not serve in any third-party capacity. Choose a term that works consistently in your program portfolio and stick with it. Some institutions have recently chosen to use the term “partner” to strategically convey to students and faculty members that their institutions are working with reputable organizations.”

Terminology occupies a prominent place in our thinking these days, from people specifying their preferred pronouns to creating new words for technology that didn’t exist in the past to changing vocabulary in study abroad. I mean, education abroad. It can be hard to keep pace with the changes, but important to look behind the words to what is driving the change or the new terminology. For the term “education abroad,” I take it to mean that what universities are offering abroad is expanding: students still study abroad but they also are educated abroad in more ways than what we think of as a traditional semester or year study abroad program. The term “study” no longer captures all the ways students learn abroad.
Similarly for the term “third-party provider.” While Ogden’s article deals mostly with semester program providers, this term seems to be losing its clarity to describe the multi-faceted relationships between provider organizations and universities and students–for longer term programs and for short-term and faculty-led programs.
I remember a heated argument many years ago at a meeting over the use of the term “vendor” to refer to organizations we now call providers. People objected to being called vendors or having to call their colleagues vendors. Yes, money is changing hands (as it does all across higher education) but the relationship between provider organizations and universities involve much more partnering than merely the buying and selling of a product that the term “vendor” implies.
Odgen’s brief suggests the term “partner,” and I like it. A partner is “one associated with another especially in an action,” (according to Merriam-Webster). It’s someone you have a relationship with and you work on something together. For faculty-led program providers, a relationship with the faculty and the education abroad office is crucial. We need to understand what the faculty want to teach, how they envision the learning experiences of their students abroad, and how the activities abroad will help them carry out their learning goals. We need to understand university policies and procedures. Conversely, faculty and education abroad professionals must understand the mission and services of their partners. Putting together a faculty-led course abroad involves much partnering and working together to make it successful. If we functioned like a vendor, we could pull a program itinerary off a shelf and call it a day. Partnering takes more time and more discussions to learn the goals of each party–and that is something I believe leads to high quality, academically rigorous and culturally rich programs.

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