There are big differences around the world in the reasons why students turn to education agents for university and student visa applications, with use of agents highest in regions and countries where there is less familiarity with the target education system. Language issues are also important, a new study by the British Council has found.
Analysis of 131,000 student responses, or 30,000 responses each year since 2007 gathered by the British Council for its just-released Student Insight report Why Students use Agents, found students in Europe were the least likely to use an education agent for assistance in applying for a university place while students in East Asia are most likely to commission their services.
In Latin America and Africa, use of education agents varies more broadly from country to country.
"Prospective students and their parents view agents differently, depending on where in the world they live," said Elizabeth Shepherd, research manager for the British Council's education intelligence unit in Hong Kong.
However, in all countries they sought an agent only once they were seriously considering overseas study. "They see it as a final stage of the process," Shepherd said.
"A big part of it is confidence. Study abroad is such a complicated issue and the perception is that it's an in-depth process to go through with a number of hurdles to cross," Shepherd told University World News.
"There will always be, especially for students entering an education system for the first time, a lot of them who have never been outside their own country."
Above all they want a time-saving and trustworthy source of guidance. "Students may seek an agent if they or their parents have never studied overseas before, or if they intend to study a newly popular subject and do not have an easily accessible reference point, or for many practical reasons, including needing someone to submit an application on their behalf or identify suitable accommodation," the study said.
"Agents have got a bad reputation. There are many awful stories. The purpose of our study was to look at students perception to gain an insight into how they have been treated," said Shepherd.
African students and students in China turn to agents to get information about universities themselves, while in South Asia the most sought after service is assistance in obtaining a student visa - possibly because there is already some familiarity with education systems in countries like Britain and the US.
"Visa application would always be high on students' need for assistance. The visa system has always been one that required time, including the need for referencing and other documentation that applies to academic study and credibility that visa regimes now call for," Shepherd said.
Among the largest groups of students going abroad, Indian students were less likely than Chinese students to use an agent, while Indian students who have previously studied overseas are less likely to use agents for subsequent applications.
European Union students wanting to study in another European country are least likely to have visa issues and as EU citizens they are entitled to pay the same tuition fees as home students.
"A large number of European organisations and associations provide information on obtaining financial aid in a student's home country for study in another EU country, they also provide advice on students rights as EU citizens and possible scholarship opportunities," the study said.
German students were the least likely to use an agent, with three-quarters of them responding negatively, followed by Belgium at 65%. Of the French students surveyed, three out of five said they would not go to an agent.
Like non-Europeans, European students sought assistance or reassurance that they are choosing the right institutions and help with accessing additional information on the institutions, the study noted. Accommodation advice is another important service.
East Asia and China
The East Asian region was the most inclined to use education agents. More than half of students in China, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam said they were likely to use and agent's services although many in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand appeared unsure about the value of agents.
In East Asia the most popular service was the provision of information relating to institutions, followed by advice on which institutions to apply to.
The most likely to use such services were students in China. "They really do feel it is such a well-established trend in the industry and a common-place practice to engage an education agent. What comes across most is the language barrier for the parent and the need to assist the child with an English language process and the time frame," Shepherd said.
In Guangzhou province in southern China, students were more likely to say they did not see the internet as a resource, referring to internet censorship issues. In Hong Kong, where internet censorship is not a problem, language was cited one of the biggest obstacles to using online resources and print materials.
Students in China with the US as their first choice destination were most likely to seek advice from an agent about institution choice.
Chinese students were also most likely to use an agent when they wanted to study subjects such as business administration.
"A possible explanation of this could be the huge and daunting number of possible course options which vary in cost and quality across all possible hosting countries. For any prospective student this would be a daunting prospect and one that would almost certainly justify the expense of consulting and education agent," the study said.
In African countries, internet connectivity and reliability are much more prominent factors in whether students turn to education agents or not.
But the issue of agent reputation has had an impact in this region, with much controversy surrounding the high number of fraudulent applications from education agents acting on behalf of students from African countries, who have been seen as trying to gain access to loans and benefits or gain residency through the back door.
"The reputation of education agents has suffered as a result of this controversy and institutions and students are reportedly wary of having applications denied as a result of being suspected as fraudulent," the report said.
A slightly higher proportion of Kenyan, Nigerian and Ugandan respondents indicated they were more likely than not to use an agent. However for Zimbabwean and Ghanaian students a slightly higher proportion said they would not.
But in Nigeria, a high proportion - almost two-thirds - of students wanting to study Veterinary Science said they would use an agent, much higher than the 40-50% of students applying for other subjects.
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