Universities’ use of overseas recruitment agents is being reviewed by the UK government, amid warnings that regulation would be another barrier to international student enrolment.
Times Higher Education understands that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has approached sector agencies in recent weeks asking for assessments of standards in this area and, it is thought, potential controls that could be introduced.
About one in three international students in the UK is thought to be introduced to their university by an agent, and combined institutional spend on commission payments topped £89 million in 2013-14, according to a THE investigation.
While there have been calls for applicants to be given greater protection against mis-selling, the government’s interest is thought to be driven by concern that some agents could be accomplices in immigration offences. About one in three cases of alleged impropriety uncovered by THE involved the use of supposedly fraudulent documents or qualifications.
There is less clarity, however, around what action the government could take, when almost all agents are based overseas. One option would be to require universities to only use agents who were part of a register, or met certain requirements.
But Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that he did not receive complaints about agents, who could be a “very useful filter mechanism” to ensure that only bona fide students were presented to universities.
“There are a range of measures that are already in place to make sure that agents are putting forward good and credible applicants,” he said. “The last thing we need is yet one more obstacle [to international recruitment].”
Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, said that the 10 per cent limit on institutions’ visa refusal rates meant that any agent who put forward fraudulent students would soon be dropped.
“Agents have a choice of countries and universities with which to work with and, if the UK makes it harder for agents to work with us, they will stop working with us and that will damage recruitment to the UK,” Mr Raimo said.
A Universities UK spokesman confirmed that the organisation “was asked recently by BIS to feed back on any issues relating to the standard practice of universities using official agents to represent them and recruit students overseas”.
A BIS spokesman said: “We constantly review the best ways to support the higher education sector in attracting international students, and have ongoing discussions with stakeholders on this and other topics.”