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7th Feb 2024

Universities UK announces admissions and agent probe

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The peak body will undertake a review of the UK’s Agent Quality Framework along with admissions processes and requirements for International Foundation Programmes
  • The move follows recent media reports critiquing international recruitment practices in UK higher education

In the wake of critical media coverage in recent weeks, the UK's higher education sector will undertake a review of the current quality framework for education agents as well as admissions requirements for one-year foundation programmes for international students.

The move follows a high-profile "exposé" published in The Sunday Times on 27 January. The piece has since been widely criticised by sectors leaders as having conflated international foundation programmes (sometimes referred to as International Year One or IYO) with full degrees.

Speaking immediately after the item's publication, Universities UK Chief Executive Vivienne Stern said: "The Sunday Times story fails to distinguish between entry requirements for International Foundation Years and full degrees. International Foundation Years are designed to prepare students to apply for full degree programmes. They do not guarantee entry to them. They are designed for students who come from different education systems where, in many cases, students might have completed 12 rather than 13 years of education…It must be understood that entry routes for international students will reflect the diverse countries and education backgrounds that these students come from, and that some will need bridging courses to enable them to progress to UK degrees."

Even so, a further statement from Universities UK on 2 February makes clear the level of concern around the story, and that the sector feels the need to respond further to a narrative that has caught the public imagination, as well as the attention of policy makers.

"There has been a significant focus on recruitment practices relating to international students in recent weeks. While many aspects of the reporting misrepresented the admissions process and criteria, we recognise the concern this has caused for students, their parents, and the public and it is vital that they all, along with government, have confidence that the system is fair, transparent, and robust," said Universities UK. "Where there is practice that falls below the standards expected of our universities and their representatives, we will take action."

The peak body has therefore determined that it will:

  • Review the Agent Quality Framework (AQF) and make recommendations to strengthen it further, particularly with respect to recommendations toward "how the AQF and wider UK data infrastructure can be enhanced to identify and address bad practice and improve resilience."
  • Commission the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) to "undertake a rapid review of [International Foundation Programmes]." That review will essentially compare requirements of International and Home Foundation Programmes, with a particular focus on admissions requirements.
  • Strengthen the sector's Admissions Code of Practice with respect to international admissions by reviewing "the Admissions Code of Practice to signpost where the Code is expected to apply to international recruitment and update the Code if appropriate."

Those moves come amidst growing calls within the UK sector for increased regulation, especially with respect to education agents. Writing in Wonkhe on 2 February, Jim Dickinson argued that the AQF review should be accompanied by a requirement that its provisions be compulsory for all institutions. "That will feel like burden to some – but it’s hard to find anything in the framework as currently described that you wouldn’t argue is pretty essential when recruiting people from another country to spend a lot of money to come study in the UK," he said.

Mr Dickinson is calling in part for expanded efforts re: due diligence in vetting agents, strengthened (and consistently applied and enforced) agent contracts, a greater onus on education providers to ensure that agents undertake required training, and greater transparency and monitoring across agent networks.

Responding via LinkedIn, higher education consultant Vincenzo Raimo added, "My view is that trying to regulate agents across national borders is the wrong place to start. We should be regulating those who appoint the agents. We are too quick to blame agents when things go wrong. It's the universities which appoint the agents in the first place who need to take responsibility for the actions their agents carry out on their behalf. I approve of the Code of Ethics for agents but where's the code of ethics for the universities and their staff?"

Even that sample of opinion reveals some persistent challenges in approaching the question of increased regulation of agents, including at least:

  • The capacity and effectiveness of institutions and schools to vet new agent contacts and to monitor agent performance
  • The practical limitations of attempting to regulate agents across national borders

Some of those points were echoed in a lively LinkedIn discussion, which included comments from industry veteran Nick Golding, who added, "Can consistency of [agent] vetting be assured when it will be undertaken by hundreds, if not thousands, of different individuals working across 140+ institutions?…Then, how will ongoing standards of practice be monitored with, for example, annual audits? Are universities resourced for that, and could it that mean that agencies are audited by every single institution they work with?"

"While I believe that all institutions everywhere should conduct some form of due diligence on agents and other suppliers of students, I don’t believe that is the ultimate answer to the problem. The international education sector as a whole needs a global standard of agency good practice and training that is independently accredited and monitored on an ongoing basis, which is at arm’s length to the agencies themselves, and institutional or national interests.

In other words, there needs to be a supranational body that can embed and police global standards effectively."

There are of course well-established models for accreditation, regulation, and agent training, but the most commonly cited examples of those are tied to specific study destinations, such as the United States, Australia, or New Zealand. We don't normally cite ICEF programmes or services in ongoing coverage, but in this case it's appropriate to point out one highly relevant and global initiative – ICEF Agency Status – that has already emerged as the industry's largest agency accreditation scheme with 1,500+ agents vetted, the status of each is regularly reviewed via annual audit. That accreditation is in turn tied to, and reinforced by, compulsory compliance with a Code of Conduct for education agencies.

The industry is clearly on a path towards increased oversight and quality assurance in this area, both in the UK and elsewhere, but the key ingredients to an effective model will include a balancing of educator and agent responsibilities, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that transcend national boundaries, and a solid grounding in the best practices and standards in the field.

For additional background, please see:

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