UK universities recruited more than 50,000 international students through commission payments to overseas agents last year, spending close to £60 million on the practice in 2010-11, a Times Higher Education investigation has found.
Using data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, THE found that 100 universities enrolled 51,0 students in 2011, or the nearest recorded period, via a process involving agents paid on a commission basis.
This represents a significant proportion of all international students in the UK. In 2010-11, 174,225 non-European Union students enrolled on higher education courses in the country, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Meanwhile, a total of £57.8 million was spent on commission payments by 92 universities in 2010-11 or the nearest recorded period (an average of around £628,000 per institution). Of the 109 institutions that responded to THE’s FoI request, 17 refused to release these data on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.
Payments made in 2010-11 do not relate exclusively to students recruited in 2011. But the figures suggest that universities handed over roughly £1,000 in agent fees for each student enlisted.
Almost all money paid to recruitment agents was on a per-student commission basis.
Liz Reisberg, a research associate at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that university admissions officers, who do not work on commission, would feel freer to offer unbiased advice about other institutions that might be better suited to would-be students.
“Can you imagine an agent [on commission] doing that?” she asked.
The biggest UK recruiter via agents was the University of Bedfordshire, which enrolled 2,461 overseas students in 2011. It refused to disclose how much it spent, citing commercial sensitivity.
Newcastle University was the biggest spender among the institutions that disclosed the commission figure, paying out £2.2 million in 2010-11.
There was no obvious correlation between entry standards and the use of agents. However, the six institutions that said they did not use agents - the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College London, the London Business School, the London School of Economics and Heythrop College, University of London - are among the most selective in the UK.
Will Archer, chief executive of i-graduate, a firm that tracks student perceptions of universities on behalf of university and government clients, said that commission payments “inevitably” lead to conflicts of interest, but agents could still “fulfil an important role” if they guided students towards the right choices.
“What would be a waste of money - and completely impractical - would be for British universities to set up recruitment offices all over the world,” he added.
But Dr Reisberg disagreed and pointed to the US, where higher education institutions have acted in consortia to open joint recruitment offices abroad, bypassing agents.
The THE survey also found that in certain respects, most universities had little idea how their agents were operating.
Asked how many students had been charged fees by an agent, almost seven out of 10 universities said they did not know.
Almost four out of five said they did not know whether agents declared to prospective students how much money they would be paid in commission or fees.
More than 70 per cent did not know whether prospective students were always accompanied by parents or a legal guardian when meeting agents (although some respondents pointed out that most were over 18).
In the “London Statement” - a code of ethics brokered by the British Council in March - agents are requested both to avoid and to declare conflicts of interest, as well as to be “transparent in fees to be paid by students and commissions paid by providers”.
The British Council said it ran training programmes for agents and told universities which firms had completed them.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said that agents “perform a signposting service” for international students, but it was “always the universities that make the final decision on a candidate’s suitability for a place”.
“Universities demand very high standards from their international agents and have their own processes for selecting which agents they work with and which they don’t,” she said.
The findings come a week after the publication of a Daily Telegraph investigation, in which a recruitment agent in China was recorded telling undercover reporters posing as representatives of a Chinese student that she could win a place at Cardiff University or the University of Sussex despite not meeting their minimum entry requirements.