China is tightening up the licensing of China-based agents for overseas universities, with the sector sullied in recent years by allegations of falsified documentation and ‘conveyor belt’ essays produced as part of the application process to universities in Britain, the United States, Australia and other countries.
In particular agents outside Beijing, which are particularly difficult to regulate, will have to apply for a licence in the province where they operate.
The need to regulate the sector comes after a myriad of consumer complaints within China and overseas.
“Many parents say they do not trust agents,” said Yang Shuai, senior consultant to BOSSA – the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association – an organisation for the agency industry backed by the Ministry of Education.
“Agents have got a bad name from fake documents and fraudulent documents in other countries, but within China their bad name comes from overpromising,” Yang told University World News.
Parents want to get their children into the best universities abroad and agents promise they can help them do that but then cannot deliver because a student’s academic record may not be good enough.
According to an official BOSSA evaluation of the sector carried out last year, some 454 licensed agencies are officially listed. Around 70 of them – usually the largest agencies – are in Beijing.
Most are small to medium-sized operations sending no more than 500 students abroad each year. Three registered Beijing agencies help more than 10,000 students a year to gain admission to overseas universities in over 20 countries.
In 2013 BOSSA member agencies, or licensed agencies, sent a total of 125,200 students abroad – an increase of 8.5% on 2012, accounting for one in three of all Chinese students that go abroad to study.
But in Beijing alone there are at least 1,000 non-accredited agencies, according to official estimates. In addition thousands of small, unlicensed agencies are scattered around many different cities in various provinces, some of them sending just one or two students abroad each year. These are the hardest to regulate.
In the past, study abroad agents had to apply for a licence from the Ministry of Education. “But a few years ago they [the ministry] closed the door and stopped approving licences because they believed there were enough agents,” said Yang.
Now the view under the new administration of President Xi Jinping is that the agents provide a valuable service for families to navigate the overseas enrolment minefield.
“Top schools favoured by the Chinese market are more strict, picky and selective of Chinese applicants but the difficulty of applying to a foreign institution, including transcripts, application forms and personal statements, remains the main cause for the need for consulting agents," explained BOSSA President Sang Peng.
“With the increasing number of [Chinese] students going abroad, more and more students are using agents. This is not a direct correlation to market growth, but the increasing reliance on third party consultants for studying abroad.”
But he acknowledged a need to bring some order to the burgeoning market. It is not only difficult for Chinese families to know which agents to trust but also for overseas institutions who rely on agents to select an agency.
It is also difficult for the government to supervise the sector. “Both licensed and unlicensed agencies are competing against each other in the Chinese market,” Sang said. “There is no unified standard of practice or pricing and as a result consumers find it hard to distinguish the licensed from the unlicensed.”
The Ministry of Education and local authorities such as the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education currently lack the power to punish unlicensed agents, and proposals to sanction errant agents previously floated by the government have now been dropped.
“The best way to control agencies is an approval system. This is the only tool the government can utilise to ensure that agencies offer good and honest practices,” Sang said.
Tightening up on licensing and inspections will mean agencies will adhere to the rules rather than lose their licence, he said.
In Beijing, where the largest and most profitable agencies helping students with overseas applications operate, the deposit fee for an agency will be tripled, from CNY1 million (US$163,000) to CNY3 million (US$490,000).
To prevent fly-by-night operators and one-man shops from setting up to exploit the market and then disappear, the deposit fee for a licensed agency in the provinces will double from CNY500,000 (US$81,000) to CNY1 million, according to a current government consultation document.
However, the fast-growing agency business is stabilising in Beijing and much of the growth is now outside the capital.
“One of the major changes by this current administration is to decentralise much of the approval process for agents,” said Yang. Provincial governments will be responsible for agents in their provinces based on national approval or licensing guidelines.
Licensing is one step towards controlling malpractices. “If you cheat you will lose your licence,” said Yang.
“However this new solution of decentralising [oversight of the] industry is unpredictable, whether or not agents will abide by their provincial codes. For example, setting up shop in Tianjin but basing operations in Beijing could happen, acknowledged BOSSA’s Sang.
“It is a grey area.”
Professionalising the sector is another way to reduce malpractice. Last month BOSSA launched an online training and certification programme for study abroad agents.
The China Education Agent Course, or CEAC, based on Australia’s agency credential programme known as IATC, launched in collaboration with Pearson and ICEF hopes to bring agents in China to ‘international standards’ of practice.
Other short training courses will help improve the way agents advise students and their families. BOSSA is also committed to providing information on the sector that agents can draw on to accurately inform clients. “We will support them with information about the market,” Yang said.
Another measure is to build up verification centres to assist overseas universities to verify documents received through agents in China.
Universities and colleges in South Korea and France only accept verified documents, and more verification partnerships are being set up such as the one with the World Education Services in the US, which has an agreement with the Education Ministry, Yang said.
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