Overseas agent probe

December 1, 2006

Potential foreign students are misled about what to expect at UK universities, reports Tony Tysome

Some overseas agents helping universities to lure international students to the UK are giving recruits false hopes of what British higher education can offer, The Times Higher has learnt.

There is mounting concern over the damage that unscrupulous agents are doing to Britain's reputation in the multibillion-pound market for overseas students, and concern about the knock-on effects for lecturers facing the brunt of complaints from disillusioned students.

I-graduate, an education consultancy, is launching a review of the rapidly growing number of unregulated agents who are prepared to sell places by making false assurances to students over their employment prospects and the facilities and level of support they will find in the UK.

Free top-of-the-range equipment for personal use, daily one-to-one tuition, guaranteed work placements with blue-chip companies, easy-to-find, lucrative part-time work and hotel-style accommodation are among the promises made to persuade students to part with tens of thousands of pounds in fees and living costs.

It is estimated that there are at least 5,000 agents worldwide whose activities account for 10 to 60 per cent of institutions' annual intake of overseas students. Some are having a role in admissions decisions, previously the exclusive responsibility of academics.

Their number and the size of their commissions [up to 15 per cent of their recruits' tuition fees] are rising as institutions strive to fight off fierce competition and to hit their own ambitious targets for increasing income from the burgeoning overseas market.

I-graduate will begin a study next year into how agents operate, what kind of relationship they have with the institutions they represent and how much they know about the institutions and their marketing strategies.

William Archer, i-graduate director, said: "We have seen a dramatic rise in the use of agents, yet this remains a relatively unregulated and misunderstood area. Institutions have set themselves high recruitment targets that they are now having to deliver. They are requiring agents to help them achieve these goals, and this can result in complicated financial arrangements that might give cause for concern."

Ganesh Valmiki, head of ValmikiEdu, an agency based in Hyderabad in India, told The Times Higher that some agents were prepared to supply false documents to help students get visas as well as making unrealistic promises about what they would find when they arrived in the UK.

He said: "Some charge £500 to provide a fake certificate saying a student has £6,000 to help them get a visa. Others place students in accommodation up to two hours from their university. Some tell students they will be able to work up to 40 hours a week and make a lot of money. Many students end up very disappointed."

Joe Docherty, director of the international office at Portsmouth University, said that agents working in his institution's main markets received training and were required to work from a script. But he admitted that many international students came in via agents in smaller markets that did not get such training. "I do not think that too many institutions in the UK would thank you for being absolutely frank about the quality of some of their facilities.

"There is a natural tension between wanting to give accurate information and trying to persuade students to come to the UK," he said.

Karen Blackney, deputy director of the Centre for International Education at Middlesex University, said: "It is crucial to get it right because if a student is unhappy they can easily damage an institution's reputation by posting their feelings on the web."

Issahaku Kotomah, international student officer for the National Union of Students, said many students faced "big-time disappointment" on arriving in the UK only to find they had been given inaccurate information.

There is concern that staff are facing the brunt of dashed expectations. Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Lecturers are under enough pressure. Their cause is not helped if their students have been made false promises by rogueJagents."

Tim Westlake, head of Manchester University's international office, said: "We need to be honest and transparent. We have to ensure our marketing does not build an unrealistic picture."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

  • An Egyptian student arrived at Middlesex University believing that a member of staff would be his chaperone around the local bars. He misunderstood the literature on social life
  • When Portsmouth University's BusinessSchool handed a standard laptop to a student from the Gulf, they complained to their embassy and demanded a top-of-the-range model
  • A number of overseas students arriving at Manchester University are disappointed to find the campus is not surrounded by rolling hills
  • A common misconception is that a course place comes with a world-class employment opportunity. Some students have been given the impression they have a guaranteed work placement with a firm such as IBM

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