Don’t let others ruin your name

The use of recruitment agents is rising, but are universities putting their reputations at risk as competition hots up?

February 19, 2015

International recruitment agents. What’s the first image that pops into your head? For many, it will be of slightly shady types whose involvement in higher education has worrying potential to compromise universities, or at the very least to give the impression that they are compromised.

That’s not to say that all or even most agents are out-and-out dodgy.

Rather, it’s that the growing role of these intermediaries, whose motivations are inevitably of the self-interested sort, is an obvious chink in universities’ ethical armour.

The uneasy relationship between higher education institutions and recruitment agents (which has resulted in US universities largely steering clear of them, although that is now changing) is explored in a forthcoming paper for the journal Studies in Higher Education.

Agents are driven by profit to a far greater degree than the universities they work with, and institutions do not always have the upper hand

The paper, by Iona Huang of Harper Adams University, Vincenzo Raimo of the University of Reading and Christine Humfrey of the University of Nottingham, identifies two key areas of tension.

The first is that agents are driven by profit to a far greater degree than the universities they work with, and institutions (especially those without a global brand) do not always have the upper hand in the relationship. As one university’s head of international recruitment says: “If [agents] had their way, we’d take all the students they send through; so in that sense, [our goals] are not aligned.”

The second is the imperfect information that universities have about agents’ activities.

A theme that comes through in the interviews carried out by the researchers is the lack of trust that many universities have in their emissaries in foreign lands. “The fundamental problem is you don’t actually know who the company is…you don’t have any real idea of who’s doing what,” explains one interviewee.

Others worry that agents may be “promising things they probably shouldn’t”, and – even more explicitly – that some may contravene anti-bribery legislation.

You might assume that universities use watertight contracts to protect their interests. But the study does not provide much reassurance, reporting a “striking lack of confidence amongst respondents that agents actually read and understand provisions about conduct”.

Approaches vary at different universities, note Huang, Raimo and Humfrey. As an interviewee at a lower-ranking institution explains: “I think we’re just grateful for applications…we need to be more flexible with some agents.”

It’s also striking that interviewees from some institutions work with up to 200 agents, while others manage just one or two at a time.

The study makes sobering reading in light of our news investigation this week showing that the sums paid to agents by UK universities has risen sharply, topping £86.7 million last year.

Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at Reading, attributes the increase to rising fees paid to agents as competition hots up in the global bazaar for this multibillion-pound export industry. If this is so, then it is strengthening the hand of the agents, which could put pressure on some universities to accept greater risk in the scramble to recruit.

Income from international students is vital to universities – as is their enriching influence on campus – but reputation is also a crucial and fragile asset, and risking that is not a price worth paying.

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