UK universities ‘increasingly reliant’ on agents for EU enrolment

THE investigation shows that more than two-fifths of institutions use EU agents, with Brexit cited as both a factor and a hindrance

March 4, 2021
Man pushes person in car race_as a metaphor for UK universities becoming increasingly reliant on agents for the recruitment of European Union students.
Source: Getty

UK universities have become increasingly reliant on agents for the recruitment of European Union students, according to a Times Higher Education investigation, although it is unclear whether Brexit will accelerate or decelerate the trend.

Data obtained from 131 higher education institutions under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 109 use agents for student recruitment and, of those, 58 confirmed that they have contracts with agents for the recruitment of EU students specifically.

At seven institutions, more than a quarter of their total EU student enrolments in 2019-20 were recruited via agents, according to an analysis of responses from 36 institutions that provided information on admissions, alongside figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. At York St John University, the University of Bradford and University College Birmingham a third or more EU enrolments last academic year came through agents.

At 18 out of the 22 universities that also shared admissions data since 2014-15, the number of EU students recruited via agents had increased over the period.

Across the 14 institutions that disclosed data on commission payments, the majority spent less than £100,000 on EU agents last academic year. However, three institutions passed this threshold, topped by University College Birmingham, which spent £665,089. In comparison, the highest commission spending on non-EU students was £6.5 million, by the University of Nottingham.

The average agent fee paid per EU student was £1,427, based on figures from 12 institutions that provided information on both recruitment and spending. The equivalent fee for non-EU students, based on data from 24 institutions, was £2,261.

While the use of agents for the recruitment of non-EU students is more widespread and consequential in terms of share of enrolments and spending, the investigation demonstrates that the use of EU agents is significant and growing.

Vincenzo Raimo, chief relationship officer at global student accommodation provider Unilodgers and an expert on transnational education and the use of agents, said it was likely that few universities used EU agents back in 2014, since EU students historically paid the same tuition fees as domestic students, meaning there was no financial incentive to recruit them over UK students.

“The differentials made it potentially prohibitive to use agents in the EU. But maybe some of this is preparation for Brexit,” he said, given that universities are now able to charge international-level fees to EU students.

The trebling of tuition fees in 2012 may have also made the outlay on commission for EU students seem more justifiable.

Mr Raimo added that “an interesting question” will be whether the extent of EU agent use in the UK continues to increase “and one can only assume the answer will be ‘yes’”.

However, Eileen Pryer, director of marketing, admissions and international at University College Birmingham, said that “due to Brexit…we have seen a significant decline in applications and as a consequence our EU agents have discontinued [to] recruit EU students”. She cited the increased fees as well as the fact that EU students cannot access UK-funded loans.

Ms Pryer added that the university did not start using EU agents because of Brexit but rather to “ensure students [felt] supported before arrival”.

Vanessa Potter, director of communications and external relations at the University of Essex, which recruited the largest number of EU students via agents in 2019-20 (423), also emphasised the support agents provide to applicants “through what can be a complicated process for some”.

She said that some of the countries where Essex uses agents are “newer members of the EU, in which we actively recruited via agents prior to them joining the EU”.

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