Increasing use of overseas recruitment agents by US institutions will mean tougher global competition for students, the UK has been told.
While universities in the UK, Australia and elsewhere have long relied on agents to draw in fee-paying students from abroad, the practice has not only been frowned upon in the US but also, in many cases, wrongly deemed to be illegal.
Will Archer, director of the research firm i-graduate, predicts that this is about to change, which would have big implications for the UK.
"The US is the largest market for international students ... , and yet it has not had a particularly commercial approach in recent years," he said. "Now that has been recognised, (and) there's real movement from an increasing number of universities to appoint education agents."
A recent i-graduate survey of 880 agents found that they had placed 60,000 students on courses in 115 countries in 2006, with the UK the leading destination.
Heading the drive to get the US competing on equal terms is Mitch Leventhal, vice-provost for international affairs at the University of Cincinnati, who said there was a common misconception that the US Higher Education Act banned the use of overseas recruitment agents.
The use of agents for domestic recruitment is forbidden within the US, but Dr Leventhal, who is a former commission-based agent and has worked with agents in Australia, said the fact that the ban did not apply internationally has been overlooked.
This, coupled with a general feeling that the practice was unethical, had, he said, severely limited the growth of institutions in the US.
"We need to look at what the Australians have done; they have been developing a lot of things that are starting to look like global standards in this field," he said.
"Australia has this network of officers around the world, people on the ground, in the time zones, who know the language and education systems and can expertly place students.
"I wondered why the Americans were flying around to world education fairs, which are very costly, where you helicopter in, pass out your material, fly home and cross your fingers.
"That was not the way the Australians were functioning, yet when I spoke to colleagues in the US they would say, 'it's illegal' or 'it's unethical'. That had me bristling because in Australia we were constantly talking about ethics, and it's not ipso facto unethical - not if you do it ethically."
Dr Leventhal said universities were shooting themselves in the foot by adopting this attitude.
"The US is losing out because it is not adopting 21st-century marketing practices; we're just not competing. I was hired by Cincinnati on the understanding that I would have the ability to explore moving in that direction, but that required a significant sell," he said.
Insisting that the US should not try to reinvent the wheel, he suggested that it adapt the Australian model to fit its existing systems. To this end, he and like-minded colleagues have set up the American International Recruitment Council to professionalise the practice.
"Until now, most US institutions working with agents have been sneaking around, looking over their shoulders, afraid that they are going to be exposed and sanctioned.
"Because they have been so paranoid about this, people haven't been sharing best practice - now we need to bring this out into the open because the appetite is huge."
The US, he said, had been resting on its laurels since the early 1990s, and while he acknowledged that rivals, including the UK, might view the increased competition with trepidation, he pointed out that cross-border education was "a big and growing pie".
He said: "If the US starts to market aggressively then our growth will pick up again, but the market globally is big enough and growing fast enough that we can all grow."
But Mr Archer cautioned: "Universities here will have to work even more closely with their agents to ensure that they continue to be motivated to recommend UK institutions."
HEAD TO HEAD: THE UK AND THE US
In 2006-07, there were 583,000 international students enrolled at universities in the US. This was a 3 per cent rise on the year before, although it followed three consecutive years of decline.
The largest group of students came from India, which sent 83,000 students to US campuses. The next largest groups were from China (67,000) and South Korea (62,000). The US enjoys the biggest share of the global market for students - 22 per cent.
UK universities played host to 350,000 international students in 2006-07. This represented a 6 per cent increase on 2005-06, which is double the growth rate of the US.
The largest number of students came from China (49,500), followed by India (23,800) and the Republic of Ireland (16,200).
The UK has 12 per cent of the global market share. This places it in second place, behind only the US.