Student recruitment agents sometimes engage in ‘outright fraud’

Report from OBHE says ‘no question’ some are involved in suspect practices

September 3, 2014

There is “no question” that suspect and outright fraudulent practice exists among the international agents that work to recruit students on behalf of universities, a report out today claims.

Arrangements where agents benefit financially on a per-enrolment basis encourage the “admission of poorly qualified applicants, mismatches between student and institution, and even outright fraud”, according to “The Agent Question: Insights from Students, Universities and Agents”, published by the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education.

In one example detailed in the report, taken from the summary of a recent meeting of the US Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, an agent set up an email account in a student’s name in order to have “total control” over any communication with the colleges to which he had applied. The student was allegedly told that any attempt to access the email address would result in the breakdown of his application process.

“I also heard about forged recommendation letters, fraudulent transcripts, phantom test-takers, even faked Skype interviews in which more-fluent English speakers took the place of prospective students fooling colleges into thinking applicants had the language proficiency necessary for admission,” the OACAC summary continues. The OBHE report describes this as a “typical litany of problems associated with agents”.

Despite these findings, the report says it would be wrong to conclude that “all agents are bad” and should be abolished, adding this would be akin to saying that the widespread phenomenon of diploma mills “means that all universities are bad and should be abolished”.

“Education agents… are a response to market conditions, and the industry is young, complex, fragmented and dynamic, not to mention thoroughly commercial,” it says. “Such an environment inevitably attracts some level of substandard practice and fraud, but the underlying need for agents is real, growing and legitimate.”

Although many agents may “go too far” in promoting particular institutions, or “admit students under false pretences or those for whom the institution is a poor fit”, there is “simply no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction on the part of students or institutions with respect to agent use”, the report states.

However, it adds that student “satisfaction” with agents could be interpreted negatively, since they may be satisfied because agents may “ghost-write essays or alter grades”.

“Equally, are institutions ‘satisfied’ with agents because agents supply lots of students or because there is clear evidence that those students are a good fit and make an informed decision,” the report asks.

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Reader's comments (2)

This article is not a good account of the Observatory's report. The journalist appears to have just lifted a few fraud quotes out of context and cobbled together a misleading summary. I am one of the authors of the report. The whole point of the research was to go beyond the kind of one-sided, evidence-poor characterization of agents, good or ill, represented by this kind of article. The report examines data from 27,000 international students, over 1,000 agents and nearly 200 universities worldwide; and offers unprecedented insights into agent performance and student/institution satisfaction. The data points to most agents are offering a legitimate, valued service. Contrary to THE's simplistic fraud mantra, the vast majority of students and institutions are satisfied with agents. The Observatory and the report are not for or against agents, but do adhere to the principle of weighing the evidence before rushing to judgement. For readers who want accurate coverage of the report, I recommend Inside Higher Ed and University World News
Thanks for your feedback Richard, and for adding to the discussion. In the article I tried to give a summary of the report's conclusions, and also draw attention to some of the more alarming practices to which it refers. These, I felt, would be of most interest to our readers.

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