In March, the G4 - Australia, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and the UK - issued an international code of ethics for education agents. The London Statement, as it is called, stresses the need for professionalism and ethical responsibility on the part of the commission-based agents who help many schools, colleges and universities to recruit international students. Although hailed as a "landmark" by the British Council, many wondered how a voluntary code could possibly bring about the change needed.
A report in last week's Times Higher Education ("Grand fee paid for each foreign student", 5 July) highlighted the extent to which UK universities rely on such agents, using them to recruit more than 50,000 international students and spending close to £60 million a year. This followed a story in The Daily Telegraph in which we were reminded of how treacherous the terrain is, how absent the real regulatory systems, and how vulnerable both students and institutions are when agents with dubious ethics operate on the open range.
The truth is that professional ethics require a real commitment by a critical mass of practitioners. The London Statement provides no incentive for agencies to comply, no method of measuring performance and no possibility of sanctioning wrongdoers. In truth, the code seems quaint: a solution based on an old-fashioned notion of "fair play" that assumes that, once explained, the rules of the game will be honoured. Perhaps in Britain, once upon a time.
This is not to say that the London Statement is wrong-headed. It was born out of the best of intentions. The signatories are, in some respects, realists. They realise that agents are here to stay, that agency intermediaries are often important to the conduct of international trade and that national law can have no effect in other lands. But they are also idealists, believing that calls for professionalism alone will save the day. Sadly, I fear that the London Statement encourages complacency, when in fact much remains to be done.
Although the US government chose not to participate in the discussions leading to the London Statement, there are major industry-led developments occurring that are immediately relevant to the situation experienced by the G4 today. Although there continues to be controversy surrounding the use of agents in the US - including disagreements among federal agencies and institutions themselves - a group of universities has undertaken a radically different approach to professionalising international recruitment.
The approach pioneered by the American International Recruitment Council is predicated on agencies voluntarily undergoing a rigorous certification process that, if successful, culminates in the award of a valuable brand of excellence. AIRC certification is modelled on higher education accreditation - one that involves external due diligence on the company and its principals, professional development, self-study and external review. This process is built around a standards framework derived from best practices documented in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere. The AIRC process takes time. It costs agencies money. And they receive no guarantees at the outset that certification is assured. But once certified, real, tangible recourse exists for both students and institutions in the event of malfeasance. The ultimate penalty - decertification - carries with it a "scarlet letter" of five years' duration and significant reputational damage.
The AIRC process involves the cooperation of many institutions working to self-regulate the international recruitment industry. AIRC member institutions take on a collective responsibility to train agents and reinforce good behaviour among those they work with. At the same time, problems encountered by institutions are reported to the AIRC so that they can be addressed. Both agencies and institutions share the same understanding of professional standards and ethics, they share best practices and they become unified in a global community of practice. AIRC certification is a badge of quality, and it is in everyone's common interest to see that the reputation of the brand remains unsullied.
In short, a cross-border certification regime as developed by higher education institutions is the only real and effective way to address the problem of ethical recruitment practice worldwide. The AIRC's strength is that it engages institutions and agencies in the solution, it involves actions not words and it removes government from the equation.
The process developed by the AIRC also helps UK institutions, since there is recourse for them should problems emerge with an AIRC-certified agency with which they are working - recourse that currently does not exist with voluntary calls to ethical practice, such as that embodied in the London Statement.
If the G4 countries are serious about solving the problem of ethics in international recruitment, they will embrace AIRC certification and accelerate its adoption worldwide. Although developed in the US, certification affords G4 institutions the same protections that it affords American institutions. If this problem is to be solved, it is time to move away from words alone, and instead encourage the best, most ethical agencies to engage in a process that can truly assure a high professional standard of service to students around the world.