Leader: Agents of potential misfortune

With immigration and university standards hot issues, any impropriety involving recruiters abroad could tar the sector

July 5, 2012

As fishing trips go, sending an undercover reporter to trawl international student recruitment agencies until someone said something dodgy was probably the equivalent of pointing a shotgun into a small barrel.

That is not to deny that The Daily Telegraph's sting last week raised legitimate questions, but since the Chinese agent who claimed to be able to secure places at UK universities for candidates with below-par grades provided no evidence that this had actually happened, it was perhaps surprising that the newspaper devoted its first three pages to the story.

So why such a splash? One factor that has been highlighted is that factions within the Conservative Party continue to brief hard against the international student boom as they grapple with what appear to be unachievable immigration reduction targets.

Certainly the Home Office is sticking to its guns on the visa restrictions, and last week's story played strongly to this agenda, as did the erroneous suggestion that international students are taking places away from home students (they are not).

Of course, for a national newspaper it was a good scoop, and conspiracy theories about any direct involvement from government are almost certain to be just that.

But mutterings that the Telegraph was doing the Home Office's dirty work highlight just how sensitive the sector is on the visas issue.

Times Higher Education has been clear in its support for the view that international students should be removed from net migration figures.

But just as the anti-immigration lobby must not be allowed to send the wrong message overseas, it is vitally important that the use of student recruitment agents is not allowed to sully the UK's reputation either.

The important issue raised by the Telegraph's sting is not one of overseas students displacing middle-class Brits, nor is it the specific claims made by the agent in question (which appear to be unverifiable). Rather, it is the impression that such loose talk gives, and it seems clear that the involvement of recruitment agents, and of a financial transaction, in securing students will always risk a whiff of impropriety.

This week, we reveal that in 2010-11, UK universities paid almost £60 million to agents who brought in 50,000 fee-paying students from outside Europe.

Most may well be honest individuals, but such widespread use of a commission-based system inevitably raises questions.

How many agents will suggest to students seeking to invest their parents' and grandparents' lifetime savings in a Western university education that the most suitable course or institution is not the one for which they work?

And on the even murkier issue of rogue agents, not everyone is convinced that malpractice is as rare as one would like to believe.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, is convinced that the "hanky-panky" highlighted by the Telegraph is "even more widespread among agents who cater to low-end American or perhaps British schools who truly care only about getting students...with little concern about standards".

If he is right, then all must watch with eagle eyes. The damage done by a genuine scandal is unlikely to be limited to the institutions involved, however unfair to the majority.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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