It has been argued, in University World News and elsewhere, that the way to address the problem of unethical student recruitment agencies is to ban them. But are all education agents inherently bad? No. Are there serious issues and potential pitfalls? Absolutely. While I agree that education agents should follow ethical business practices, I disagree that the solution is not to use any of them.
In June 2016, NAFSA: Association of International Educators published a Bridge/StudentMarketing survey indicating that 37% of United States institutions are now using recruitment agents, a significant increase compared to findings in previous studies that showed the use of agents in the 20% to 30% range.
Cases such as that of Western Kentucky University – which used an agency in India to recruit students that did not use adequate quality control, resulting in almost half of the recruits being sent home – are simply cautionary tales, a lesson that can be learned by other institutions of higher education: cover the basics; make sure ‘your’ agents share your view of the importance of ‘truth in advertising’ and work with students who meet your institution’s admission criteria; most importantly, trust but verify.
There was also the case of the University of Northern New Jersey, a faux university created in 2013 by the US Department of Homeland Security, with a website, staff and all the fixings, in the hope that brokers who enrol foreign students under false pretences, for instance for the sole purpose of obtaining immigration status, would exploit it.
Unaware of the trap, brokers helped more than a thousand foreign students obtain fraudulent student visas and foreign visas and were later arrested.
The good news is that the US is a little safer and US higher education more ethical with 21 greedy people under arrest for conspiracy to commit visa fraud, conspiracy to harbour aliens for profit and other offences.
The bad news is that the investigation probably cost millions of dollars and resulted in 21 ‘show arrests’, according to one former US government insider, all the while turning a blind eye towards currently existing US colleges and universities, including officially accredited ones and rogue providers (that is, unaccredited), that are doing pretty much the same thing as the fake UNNJ.
Not all education agents are cut from the same unethical cloth, though, and not all will do anything for money, including committing visa fraud.
Institutions behaving badly
There are, however, myriad examples of unethical business practices.
As a result of a couple of hard-hitting exposés, the US government focused its attention on two nationally accredited universities in northern California, including one that has reportedly “turned itself into an upmarket visa mill, deploying a system of fake grades and enabling thousands of foreign students to enter the United States each year – while generating millions of dollars in tuition revenue for the school and the family who controls it”.
Where are the referrals coming from? From education agents whose primary, or exclusive, concern is money and how much they can make.
Students who attend these types of universities generally fall into two categories: 1) those who think it’s something that it’s not because an agent sells them a bill of goods (they show up, discover the deception and look for quality transfer opportunities); and 2) those whom a well-known accreditation expert calls ‘willing co-conspirators’, who – with a wink and a nod – go, pay US$10,000 a year (tuition/fees only) and wait for the chance to work and eventually emigrate. The latter, who comprise the majority, know the score.
Think of this particular type of agent and the criminally negligent ‘officially accredited’ institutions with which they are doing business as partners in crime. The use of loopholes and lack of oversight in this area is contributing to a mismatch between students and institutions and is lowering the quality of education offered.
External stamps of approval
Oversight is a team effort that involves accrediting agencies and the government that is responsible for official oversight. In the above cases both of them abdicated their responsibility.
As I mentioned in a December 2014 essay entitled Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment, external stamps of approval can be useful but have limitations.
For example, while the American International Recruitment Council, or AIRC, has helped to take the ‘agent debate’ to the next level and its certification of agents represents genuine progress, it’s difficult for its full-time staff of three to monitor a global network of 75 certified agents with offices in more than 300 cities in 90 countries, in addition to sub-agent networks that they are allowed to develop, plus six pathway programmes with 21 partner institutions and their extensive agent networks.
Which educational consulting companies get AIRC certification? Those that can afford it (US$10,000) and those that want or need an external stamp of approval to attract more partners and clients.
Not every agent whose company name appears on a US Commercial Service list for Gold Key Service visits has been selected based on a formal vetting process.
In addition, what AIRC and the US government – via its Commercial Service and EducationUSA (of the State Department) – have in common is that the former permits its certified agents to work with nationally accredited or NA colleges and universities, most of which are for-profit entities, while the latter represents all officially accredited US higher education institutions, including those that are NA.
Beyond education agents
One major problem is that universities that just sign agent agreements, sit back and expect the student spigot to begin to flow freely are living in the past, especially in competitive markets.
In Vietnam, for example, which is the country du jour for US colleges, universities and boarding or day schools for a host of domestic and international reasons that transcend the scope of this article, there are hundreds of US higher education institutions recruiting from a smaller pool of students than in larger markets like China and India.
As a result, they need to have a diversified long-term strategy that includes not only armchair techniques like digital marketing but also in-country activities such as fair and information session participation and even long-term in-country representation, in addition to developing a quality and ethical agent network.
Working with education agents should be just one of many tools in an institution’s recruitment toolbox. If it’s the only one, your recruitment efforts are doomed to fail.
Although the use of education agents is fraught with potential problems, it is possible to develop ways to address legitimate concerns related to the holy trinity of accountability, integrity and transparency.
Like any business relationship, whether it’s related to education or any number of other products and services, trust is essential. Trust is based on reputation and meeting the expectations of the 'customer', in this case, a college or university involved in recruitment of international students. It is strengthened with each successful and mutually beneficial interaction.
So, choose carefully, hold your education agent(s) accountable, monitor their activities, stay engaged, stay in touch, and reward them for a job well done, which is to help recruit qualified and suitable students for your institution.
There is plenty of help along the way, including professional associations such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators and, in particular, the National Association for College Admission Counseling or NACAC, which approved a change to its ethical standards permitting the use of commissioned agents in the recruitment of international students in September 2013.
For example, a year after the decision to allow the use of education agents among its member institutions, NACAC published a 24-page guide entitled International Student Recruitment Agencies: A guide for schools, colleges and universities, written by Eddie West, director of international initiatives, and his colleague, Lindsay Addington, assistant director of international initiatives.
It contains valuable information about international student recruitment agencies, legal requirements and accreditation standards, campus impacts, operational protocols and institutional policy, contracts, vetting, training and ongoing supervision of agency activity and signs of good practice and warning signs.
The guide also features a due diligence checklist, a sample agency questionnaire, sample reference check questions, information about remuneration terminology and approaches, and additional resources.
Do good and do well
People from every culture in the world want to be treated with respect and do not want to be cheated. For their part, educational consulting companies with a long-term vision realise that doing business ethically, doing good and doing well, makes for better business, in addition to being the right thing to do.
That realisation, combined with quality relationships, ongoing oversight and a no-nonsense carrot-and-stick approach on the part of educational institutions involved in the recruitment of international students, will help ensure that they avoid ethical landmines and achieve outcomes that benefit students, host institutions, agents and society as a whole.
Mark A Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005-09.
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