New regulations currently being considered by China’s Ministry of Education could lead to a tightening of services provided by international student recruitment agents – to the extent of banning the operations of some altogether.
According to a recently published draft of the new regulation, provincial education authorities will be able to approve or reject intermediary agencies, strengthen supervision of their activities and have the power to ban foreign agencies from operating in China.
The draft regulation, posted in Chinese on the ministry website for consultation until 5 November, stipulates that overseas agencies – including their representative offices in China – foreign-invested enterprises, Chinese-foreign joint schools and individuals shall not be engaged in ‘intermediary services’ in China.
It applies to universities, high schools recruiting Chinese students and language schools.
The government move is part of larger changes and appears to be an effort to bring international student recruitment in line with other regulations regarding the activities of foreign organisations in China, in order to regulate them better.
According to the official news agency Xinhua, the ministry said some “unqualified” agencies provide services to students wishing to study abroad and some help clients to forge materials required for applications or “cheat” clients out of money.
The rules come in the wake of numerous accounts in Western media and on China’s Sina Weibo microblogging sites of aggressive recruitment of Chinese students by foreign universities, making false claims about their facilities and degrees in order to attract fee-paying international students.
For example, Australia’s Knight Review of the Student Visa Programme referred in March 2011 to “unscrupulous education agents on impossibly high commissions, funnelling students with fraudulent documents into any course irrespective of the quality of the course or the student”.
In July, New Zealand immigration officials found that 279 applications from Chinese students contained some form of fraud, with intermediary agencies blamed for the discrepancies, according to Xinhua.
Gaps in regulatory system
United States officials have also privately blamed agents who receive commissions for recruiting foreign students to a number of universities regarded as ‘visa mills’, such as Tri Valley and the University of Northern Virginia.
But these cases have also exposed gaps in the US’s own regulatory system, with little protection for students if they are defrauded by agents or universities.
According to Philip Altbach of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, agents and recruiters are “impairing academic standards and integrity and should be eliminated or severely curtailed”.
‘Government’s should be responsible’
Although foreign-based agents are not necessarily the main culprits, they are considered to be difficult to regulate, unlike China-based companies, which must be officially registered.
"If the companies are located on the Chinese mainland, students and parents can easily visit the companies to see the qualifications and environment, getting a feel for the company," an unnamed staff member of an education agent based in Beijing was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
“However, if the companies are located overseas, it is not easy to judge their qualifications by looking at their websites and other non-face-to-face means of communication.”
Daniel Billington, director of the UK-based agency Study-International, told University World News that the sector “should not be self-regulating”, but governments should also be responsible for protecting students from poor advice.
“It is good that the [Chinese] government is getting involved in what’s going on in their country,” he said, although he believes agents have a role. “In an ideal world agents should be delivering impartial advice to the individual; that is how I operate,” he said.
Despite regulations by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and others, there were still businesses in the UK that recruit for UK universities and “who don’t seem to be working within the domain of any particular governance”, Billington said.
Chinese experts have noted that little has been done to rein in dubious practices, particularly in the US, often leaving students in the lurch when problems arise.
The Chinese ministry’s draft regulation also requires agencies to have an ‘emergency fund’, under the supervision of the authorities, so that clients can be refunded when things go wrong. In a number of cases students have been left high and dry, without resources and having lost money on fees paid, after an institution has closed.
According to one Beijing source, the education ministry has also become wary of loopholes that are being exploited, such as exchange programmes set up with Chinese universities.
Xinhua pointed to Dickinson State University in America, which was described by the authorities at one point as a ‘diploma mill’ after an audit revealed that unqualified international students were admitted and awarded degrees. Some 95% of the university’s students were reportedly from China.
According to an Associated Press report in February, some recruiters in China passed themselves off as Dickinson State employees, altering genuine school business cards to print their own with the title, "DSU China Center."
However Dickinson State also had exchange relationships with 19 Chinese universities, some of them very reputable, according to official Chinese sources.
Under a special programme Chinese students could earn degrees both from Dickinson State and a university in China, with laxer rules of qualification – for instance, regarding English proficiency tests – than normally required to attend a US university.
Exchange programmes between Chinese universities and foreign partners are easy to set up, requiring only a memorandum of understanding signed by both university heads, or even department heads, without any ministry oversight, official sources in China noted.
Move towards transparency
In the UK, the University of Nottingham, which attracts large numbers of Chinese students and has its own branch campus in Ningbo, China, has said that one in five of its international students came via an appointed agent last year. However, the university stressed that it only works with Chinese companies properly registered in China.
“The impact [of this regulation] on us will be minimal on two grounds – we recruit very few students through recruitment agents in China, and these are not foreign companies,” said Vincenzo Raimo, director of Nottingham University’s international office.
However, he added, longer term there could be a knock-on impact of tightening of regulations on language schools and other parts of the education sector that are feeders for the university.
This week, Nottingham became the first UK university to publish commission rates that it pays to its appointed student recruitment representatives and agents.
“In general, the university will now pay standard agency fees irrespective of subject area, rather than the traditional approach adopted by UK and Australian universities of paying commission as a percentage of tuition fees,” the university said in a statement on Thursday.
“We think agents are important and can give students good advice, and they are an important part of the recruitment process, but they should not operate in secret,” Raimo told University World News, emphasising that transparency was important to ensure a good service for students.
Despite guidelines on using agents in Australia, for example, universities there continue to keep elements of the recruitment process under wraps, seeing it as commercially sensitive information.
In the US, some universities are bypassing intermediaries by setting up university consortia for the purpose of marketing and recruiting students in China and other countries, or setting up their own offices in China.
According to those familiar with the industry, with the growth in the numbers of students going abroad, education agents have multiplied in China, with more than 400 agencies currently licensed by the government, and many others that do not operate under licence.
According to the ministry, the number of Chinese students studying abroad has seen an annual growth rate of almost 20%, from 118,500 students in 2005 to 339,700 in 2011. The number is expected to reach 400,000 this year.
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