Dozens of UK universities rely on recruitment agents to enrol the majority of their international student intake, an analysis suggests.
Figures published by Times Higher Education earlier this year indicate that about one-third of overseas learners who began courses at all levels of study in the UK during 2013-14 had been enrolled via agents. The data came from universities’ responses to Freedom of Information requests.
However, comparing that information with Higher Education Statistics Agency data on individual institutions’ total non-European Union intakes reveals significant variation in the reliance on agents.
At 37 institutions, the number of students signed up via agents in 2013-14 was equivalent to more than half the Hesa figure for international enrolment. In 16 of these cases, agents helped to enrol at least two-thirds of the overseas intake.
In all, 75 institutions, the majority of the 144 that provided data to THE, released a figure for agent-based recruitment that represented at least a third of the Hesa figure for non-EU enrolment.
Some anomalous results in the analysis might indicate that a few institutions included in their responses learners whose studies would begin in the subsequent academic year. Several universities did not reveal how many students they had enrolled using agents.
Nevertheless, it is clear that post-92 universities rely more heavily on agents for international recruitment than older institutions.
Across the 144 responding institutions, agent-based recruitment accounted for 36.5 per cent of their total overseas intake.
This figure falls to 25 per cent when the 21 members of the Russell Group that provided data are considered alone. Of these 21 research-intensive universities, five (among them Oxford and Cambridge) had recruited no students using agents.
Of the 50 institutions that were most reliant on agents, 33 were post-92s.
The elite do not need agents to enrol students, said Richard Garrett, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. “These institutions combine top brands, high visibility and high application volume…Institutions that are less well known outside the UK or want to achieve outsized international recruitment tend to see agents as a way to help bridge the gap.”
Intensive use of agents makes institutions dependent on middlemen for a large part of their income. Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, has argued that such “over-reliance” has “clearly weakened” the position of some when dealing with poor agent behaviour.
But Mr Garrett said that he “would not cite any inherent risk in high dependence on agents, if relationships are well managed”.
Based on THE’s data, the average agent fee paid per student in 2013-14 was estimated to be £1,767. Since then, the University of Sunderland has disclosed that it spent £2.4 million on agent fees in 2013-14, and £9.5 million over a three-year period – one of the highest totals in the UK.
This, and disclosure of £390,636 of spending on agents in 2013-14 by the Open University, inflated the UK-wide outlay for that year to £89.5 million.