Agents are not the villains of piece

July 19, 2012

Regarding "Grand fee paid for each foreign student" (News, 5 July). The article makes much of Newcastle University spending £2.2 million on recruitment agents' commission. What it does not mention is that according to the most recent Higher Education Financial Yearbook, this helped to secure non-European Union student fees of £38 million: at 6 per cent of the associated income, that looks like a pretty good deal.

Sadly, there is a faction in higher education that starts from the assumption that agents are crooks and shysters until proven otherwise, and that the commercial model by which universities rather than parents fund the recruitment infrastructure is inherently unethical and subject to irreconcilable conflicts of interest.

All good knockabout stuff, but you can make an equally good case that students get better advice from agents representing a broad cross-section of countries and institutions than from a university recruitment office, the first duty of which is to the institution. I see no problem with the service being grounded on referral payments rather than direct charges to parents or students.

Coupled with their high-level personal and counselling skills, agents are generally bilingual, possess extensive knowledge and understanding of education systems in the UK and elsewhere, and can help students and their parents navigate the relevant visa and regulatory regimes. They also offer a service to local education providers whose staff are not necessarily conversant with overseas university systems, and facilitate contact with schools and local universities by visiting UK academic staff. The larger agencies host exhibitions where aspiring students can talk directly to international universities.

Acting in loco parentis (particularly when parents have little English), the agents track student performance, hold universities to account for student welfare and interpret reports for foreign families. They are hardly the villains of the piece. Shading the international debate on a presumption of guilt obscures the real issues and helps no one in the academy - particularly when it seems to offer comfort to the Home Office's grotesque position on international student numbers.

Lawrence Denholm, Airton, North Yorkshire

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