UK universities’ commission payments to overseas recruitment agents have topped £86 million after rising sharply in recent years, a Times Higher Education investigation has found.
Data obtained from 158 higher education institutions under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that all but 19 elite or specialist institutions now use agents to enrol non-European Union students.
Of 106 that provided details of commission payments, their spending in 2013-14 totalled £86.7 million. This is a 16.5 per cent increase on the £74.4 million outlay two years earlier.
It appears that the increase is driven as much by rising commission rates as by expanding recruitment.
Across the 124 institutions that provided information on admissions, the number of international students enrolled using agents totalled 58,257 in 2013-14. This was up 6.4 per cent on the 2011-12 figure of 54,752.
The data suggest that agents were used to recruit a significant proportion of all non-EU learners studying at UK universities.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 179,390 non-EU students started courses at all levels of study in the UK during 2013-14. The students listed in responses to THE alone account for 32.5 per cent of this total.
Commission payments may vary by institution, by agent and by market, but, based on figures from 101 institutions that provided information on both recruitment and spending, the average agent fee paid per student in 2013-14 was £1,767.
That still left substantial income for institutions, with average overseas undergraduate tuition fees for that year standing at £11,289 for classroom subjects and £13,425 for laboratory-based courses.
Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, said that the figures demonstrated how British higher education institutions remained “incredibly reliant” on agents.
“I think in part this is due to increased competition both from within the UK but also elsewhere in the world. We have now seen US universities formally starting to work with agents and being aggressive in the market, and UK universities are having to respond in order to meet ever more ambitious recruitment targets,” said Mr Raimo.
“I think also the constant changes to the visa regime have forced more potential applicants into the hands of agents in order to help them through what they perceive to be a complicated and difficult process of applying for a student visa.”
The biggest spender, according to the responses to THE’s request, was Coventry University, which paid out £10.2 million in commission fees and VAT over the past three years. However, the university included fees paid to progression partners, such as providers of pre-degree courses, in its response.
The biggest spenders that provided answers for spending on recruitment agents alone were the University of Bedfordshire, which spent £9.5 million, and Middlesex University, which spent £8.8 million including VAT.
Twenty-seven institutions that use agents refused to reveal details of their commission payments, citing commercial confidentiality.
Coventry recruited the largest number of students using recruitment agents over the three-year period (5,634) – with those recruited via progression partners excluded for this answer.
Newcastle University was the second most active, recruiting 5,085 students using agents between 2011-12 and 2013-14.
Liz Reisberg, formerly of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US and now an independent consultant, described the amounts of money being spent on agents as “staggering”. Ms Reisberg said that universities could ensure higher standards by employing staff directly overseas.
“When you are spending so much money, why not spend it wisely…It would be better to invest in your own university and in your institutional capacity,” she added.
But Kevin Van-Cauter, higher education adviser at the British Council, said that agents played a useful role for institutions and students.
“For most universities, this is the most cost-effective way of recruiting, particularly where they may not have the staff or the budgets to cover certain countries, or to maintain a continued presence in that market in a way that will deliver the numbers for that institution,” he said.
“Agents play a crucial role in counselling and converting interest from students and their parents into ‘placements’ with institutions.”
Although there was little obvious correlation between entry tariffs and the use of agents, the universities that said they did not use agents included some of the UK’s most selective, such as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London.
Among the 15 remaining Russell Group institutions that disclosed details of their commission payments, eight were among the biggest 20 spenders overall.