Use of international recruitment agents ‘needs overhaul’

Paper by academics calls for greater transparency

October 16, 2014

UK universities should overhaul the way they use international student recruitment agents or face having external regulation imposed on them by the government, a report says.

Three academics who studied the sector with the support of the British Council argue greater self-regulation and transparency is needed, including the publication of details about commission paid to agents.

The trio say that the action is necessary to reduce the potential for mis-selling and fraud by agents and to ensure that universities do not suffer financial loss or reputational damage.

The paper was written by Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor for global engagement at the University of Reading, Christine Humfrey, special professor in international education at the University of Nottingham, and Iona Yuelu Huang, a senior lecturer at Harper Adams University.

They estimate UK universities now spend more than £60 million on commission to international student recruitment agents and accept the industry can help institutions to recruit in larger numbers, more widely, and less expensively.

But interviews with university staff found widespread variance in recruiting, training, monitoring and rewarding of agents.

While some universities felt agents played an important role in identifying fraud, others were concerned that malpractice originated with the middlemen – leaving UK-based staff to take action to ensure compliance with rules and to debate to what extent they could “turn a blind eye”. The researchers learned that few institutions used a “mystery shopper” to assess the work of agents.

The report warns that the lack of transparency “could cause significant harm to the university sector” and that increased openness should include the release of more information “about agent use and the basis of the relationship between them and universities, including being clear about commission payments”.

The authors concede that universities may be reluctant to release information due to competition factors. But they say greater transparency is necessary to help students understand the basis on which advice is being given.

“If UK universities do not themselves better regulate the way they work with agents they could instead face imposed external regulation as has been the case elsewhere and as, it is understood, is currently being considered as an option by the UK government,” the report says.

Other recommendations include a suggestion that universities should be proactive in sourcing agents and should tender where appropriate rather than relying on approaches or recommendations.

Contracts should specify behaviour norms so performance can be assessed qualitatively as well as quantitatively and universities should carry out robust due diligence throughout the relationship, the report adds.

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Reader's comments (2)

But this would bankrupt companies such as StudyGroup, Into Partnerships and Kaplan whose one card trick is to pay excessive, supernormal, exhorbitant commissions of 20-40% of students' inflated fees to recruitment agents to lure students into their inferior Pathways courses. In the pro-business, free-market UK I can't see this happening. Mr Pittman, Mr Colin, take heed!
The call for transparency is very compelling. Of course the ‘how much’ is commercially sensitive, but resistance can be, dare I say, motivated by internal considerations as much as external ones – imagine the potential uproar at some universities when the cost of working with agents stops being a rumour and becomes official! Hiding facts won’t help with the reality: yes, universities recruit via agents; yes, partnerships are commercial in nature; and yes, it costs a lot of money to recruit this way, not just in direct fees. And of course, international students aren't naïve and know their value to universities and agents alike. What they don’t know is what universities pay agents for. As the report findings say, openness is key to ensuring standards and avoiding disasters in the long-term. It will also help combat persisting views of recruitment via agents as somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘unethical’. Only this way can we get wider acceptance for what’s now an established recruitment channel.