UK universities have investigated more than 50 allegations of fraud or impropriety involving overseas recruitment agents in the past three years.
Of 139 higher education institutions that told Times Higher Education that they use agents, 34 said that they had had to take action over suspected wrongdoing between 2011-12 and 2013-14, dealing with a total of 54 cases.
The figures were obtained from universities by THE under the Freedom of Information Act.
The most common concern was the use of supposedly fraudulent documents or qualifications, which was the case in 17 of the incidents disclosed.
Issues surrounding fees – usually involving the taking of money from a student by an agent who then failed to pass it on to the university – were behind 10 cases.
Richard Garrett, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, said that the figures were “strikingly low relative to the allegations often made against the agent industry” and chimed with surveys that found that most students who used agents were satisfied with the service that they received.
“In any large, young, diverse, fragmented and commercial industry, such as education agents, some level of fraud is bound to occur, but personally I don’t see evidence of widespread or systematic deception,” Mr Garrett said.
“In my view, institutions and students would not continue to rely on agents, in ever greater numbers, if service was typically poor, let alone fraudulent.”
In the 54 cases that were disclosed, 29 led to the cancellation of a contract with an agent. Three allegations proved to be unfounded, and one remained under investigation.
The institution that dealt with the most allegations was Royal Holloway, University of London, which investigated seven cases over three years.
In six of these, which related to the receipt of fraudulent documents, Royal Holloway continued to work with the agents in question after receiving reassurance that improvements had been made.
It was only in a seventh case, in which an agent breached its contract by collecting tuition fees from a student, that a relationship was permanently terminated.
The University of Edinburgh, which dealt with four incidents over three years, terminated contracts on each occasion.
Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, cautioned that his research on agents indicated that most action against alleged impropriety was of an informal nature that would not be recorded.
THE’s data suggest that most universities react when complaints are made but do not undertake continuing due diligence, Mr Raimo said, adding that he regarded this as a significant weakness.
“Different universities take very different approaches to contractual contraventions by agents, with many ignoring what others might perceive as infringements for fear of damaging future recruitment,” Mr Raimo said.
“Over-reliance on agents by some has clearly weakened their position in dealing with poor agent behaviour.”
Other examples of impropriety included the case of an agent who referred a “large number of inappropriately qualified applicants”, reported by the University of Central Lancashire, and two incidents of the unauthorised issue of offer letters, disclosed by Sheffield Hallam University.
The University of the West of England said that it was still considering whether to terminate its relationship with an agent who had carried out recruitment on campus for courses at competitor institutions.