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.