The use of education agents to recruit international students is becoming increasingly common around the world, to the point where agents are driving significant proportions of international enrolments in some countries. A recent survey by Times Higher Education (THE), for example, found that British universities’ commission payments to agents totalled £86.7 million (US$127 million) in 2013/14. The Observatory on Borderless Education, meanwhile, says that agents now help recruit almost 40% of Britain’s international students.
THE has reported regularly in recent years on university commission payments to agents, and those commission values have increased dramatically over the past decade. The figure noted above for 2013/14 alone represents a 16.5% increase over reported commissions of £74.4 million (US$109 million) for 2011/12, and an average commission per student of £1,767 (US$2,585).
The increasing use of education agents by UK institutions appears to have been triggered in part by the first phase of the Prime Minister’s Initiative (PMI) in 1999. The initiative set a target to recruit an additional 75,000 non-European Union students to the UK by 2005. With those initial targets met ahead of schedule, the PMI was succeeded by a second phase (and new targets) in 2006. All that to say that the two PMI phases ushered in a period of expansion for international education in the UK, one that was accomplished in part through the efforts of education agents around the world.
The latest THE survey of UK universities found that:
- Of 158 higher education institutions, all but 19 elite or specialist institutions now use agents to enrol non-European Union students;
- The 124 British institutions that provided admissions data for THE’s 2013/14 survey recruited a total of 58,257 students via education agents. This is a 6.4% increase over the enrolment attributed to agents in 2011/12 and represents 32.5% of all new international students reported for the UK last year.
Commenting on the expanded use of agents, Vincenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement at the University of Reading said:
“I think in part this is due to increased competition both from within the UK but also elsewhere in the world. We have now seen US universities formally starting to work with agents and being aggressive in the market, and UK universities are having to respond in order to meet ever more ambitious recruitment targets.”
As the practice of using commission-based agents has become more established, the roles agents can play for schools seem to be expanding, and the need for ways to identify the best agents – and to work optimally with them – is growing in tandem.
Until now, international education agents have been valued primarily for their location in key, faraway markets – and consequent ability to represent schools to potential students who would otherwise be very expensive or impossible to reach. According to this role, the agent introduces a prospective student to a school or institution, and if a student chooses a school, the agent most often receives a commission from the school and, in some cases, fees from the student as well.
This student-school matching is still a key function of international education agents, but increasingly, it does not encompass all the potential inherent in working with agents. Anna Magyar and Anna Robinson-Pant of the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) at University of East Anglia note that it is problematic to consider agents solely from an “instrumental” perspective “based on the imperative of international student recruitment as a vital income stream.”
Such a perspective is based on a commoditised approach to education – one that considers international students mainly as a source of revenue especially helpful in times of budget cuts and decreasing domestic enrolments. Martin McQuillan, writing in THE, said the following about the problems with such an approach:
“A university degree is not a commodity. It cannot be bought and sold on eBay. A degree is a positional good; its value is a function of the ranking of its desirability by others in comparison with alternatives …. it is the key to unlocking human potential, to securing a more just society …. It also contributes to economic growth and cultural achievement.”
For a long time now, agents have been associated with the commercial aspects of international education, and there is growing awareness across international education that this is limiting both in the sense of the respect due to quality agents and in terms of the contribution they make to internationalisation in institutions and schools.
Ms Magyar and Ms Robinson-Pant conducted interviews with a small sample of agents that yielded interesting insights into the benefits they see themselves as providing:
“An agent in Taiwan explained how she saw her role as helping clients to adopt a ‘healthy concept about pursuing international higher education’ rather than making multiple applications.
An agent in Japan, comparing his own experience of applying to a UK university many years ago, felt that applicants needed his help to navigate and interpret the vast amount of information now available on the Internet.
In many respects, the agents were not only ‘hand-holding’ or selling UK universities to prospective students. They could also help their clients make the transition to another country and higher education system, through informally sharing their cultural insights and experiences.”
A different understanding
A broader view of the part agents can play in internationalisation has taken hold in recent years, one in which:
- Institutions are more transparent about their relationships with agents and how this drives their international student recruitment efforts;
- Institutions rely more on available resources (e.g., national agent approval systems like in Australia or New Zealand, or agent training and vetting organisations like AIRC, British Council, and ICEF) to access qualified agents;
- Institutions enable agents as partners in extending important student and parent support services and so in boosting the quality and fit of incoming students.
Taken to its fullest extent, this view considers agents to be “engaged in inter-cultural communicative practices … [and] also as ‘educators,” as per Ms Magyar and Ms Robinson-Pant’s line of thinking. At the same time, it more openly acknowledges that agents are key to the recruitment process.
For institutions to work optimally with agents, as per the points above, they need to know:
- The range of functions the best agents can fulfill;
- The resources they can make use of to identify such agents;
- The practices they can establish to ensure transparent and productive institution/agency relationships.
The case for transparency
The British Council published a guide last year, Managing international student recruitment agents that explores the business case for agents and makes a number of recommendations targeted to UK institutions. The guide emphasises the need for improved training for international office staff, strengthened monitoring of recruitment procedures and results, and better processes for selecting and managing agents.
“Much of the discussion about the regulation of agent-led student recruitment is focused on how agents work,” says Mr Raimo, who wrote the guide with co-authors Christine Humfrey and Iona Huang.
“When things go wrong, we’re quick to blame agents. The reality though is that the university-agent relationship is a partnership and when things go wrong both sides share responsibility… The London Statement is fine but focuses on one side of the partnership only. Universities need to ensure processes for the selection and appointment of agents and then in training and supporting them.”
The guide also makes a strong case for more transparency around university-agent relations – more specifically, that universities should publicly release more information about the agents they work with, the nature of those working relationships, and commissions paid. “The current lack of transparency about their use by universities could cause significant harm to the university sector. 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,” says the guide.
The authors note that more openness around university-agency relationships bears on the quality of service for students and families as well. “Greater transparency in the university-agent relationship is needed to ensure that students and their parents understand the nature of the relationship between agents and universities,” adds Mr Raimo.
The increasing use of agents in the UK and in other key markets around the world brings home the importance of questions about how best to work with agents in a way that not only drives international enrolments but protects the integrity of the industry and, first and foremost, the best interests of students. International education is clearly taking steps towards greater transparency and improved practice, and it seems likely that the expanded use of education agents will only accelerate this process.