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The use of agents in the recruitment of international students sparks constant debates in countries that make wide us of this instrument – like the UK, US or Australia – because of the financial, ethical and academic implications of this practice. A recent investigation conducted in the UK by Times Higher Education, under the Freedom of Information Act, brings new ammunition for another round of heated discussions. The THE investigation, which estimates that around 50 000 non-EU students were recruited in 2010/11 by UK universities through commissioned agents, sends two strong messages.
The first message is that UK universities spend impressive amounts of money on agents. THE found that the 92 universities that agreed to provide this information spent almost GBP 60 million (EUR 75.6 million) in 2010/11 on commission payments - i.e. GBP 628 000 (EUR 791 000) per institution on average and roughly GBP 1 000 (EUR 1260) per enlisted student. Most money was spent on a per-student commission basis, according to THE. Some institutions refused however to answer the financial questions, on grounds of commercial sensitivity. Among those that answered, Bedfordshire University recruited the highest number of students through agents – 2 461 – while Newcastle University was the biggest spender – GBP 2.2 million (EUR 2.7 million) in 2010/11.
The second important message is that while institutions spent so much money to support this activity, they rarely have full information about the way in which the agents they use operate. Most universities do not know, for example, whether the agents also charge commissions to students, or whether the students were accompanied by parents or by a legal guardian when meeting the agents.
What is missing from the THE investigation however, is a calculation of how much money the students entering UK universities via agents brought for the UK economy in 2010/11 – both in terms of tuition fees and living expenses.
In order to bring more light into the workings of this system, the British Council brokered a code of ethics in March this year – the London Statement – together with representatives of Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, through which agents are requested to be more transparent in the fees they charge both from the institutions and prospective students, as well as to avoid/declare conflicts of interest (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, May 2012). The Council also runs training programmes for agents, and while it has no accreditation powers, it informs UK institutions about the agents that completed its training.