Are recruitment agents an express train without brakes?

The use of commission-based international recruitment agents is the accepted norm in Australia and the UK while it continues to create waves among American higher education institutions, as evident from a recent meeting of National Association for College Admission Counseling.

With commissioned agents we are being promised an express train (quick numbers), which presents challenges in terms of applying brakes (ensuring quality and enforcing standards).

I am not questioning whether it is illegal or unethical to use commission-based agents for international student recruitment in the US.

However, I am arguing that doing so puts the integrity of the admissions process at risk as it creates an incentive for misrepresentation, fraud and bias. At the end of the day, for agents, if there’s no admission, there’s no commission.

Of course, irrespective of any relationship with a third party, institutions must build rigorous policies and practices. More importantly though, they must raise their standards even higher under a commission-based model to preserve the integrity of their international admissions process and safeguard their reputation.

Australia and the UK

Australian and British institutions depend heavily on international students as they form nearly 20% and 15% of total higher education enrolments respectively. Any decline in international student numbers may threaten the financial stability of institutions and even the higher education system.

A recent report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a loss of $3 billion from the education sector due to a decline of international student enrolment in 2011.

Institutions in Australia and the UK have been using commission-based agents for several years, as it was the most effective incentive-driven model available to compete against the brand dominance of US higher education.

Over time, the agency model became deeply ingrained in the higher education system so that now they no longer have a choice but to work with it despite the numerous challenges the model presents.

Both Australian and British institutions have been successful in attracting international students; however, after witnessing a decade of boom in international students coming from commission-based agents, both countries faced a rude shock during the recent recession.

They realised that many students were gaming the system with support from some agents and using education as a pathway for immigration. Several cases of fraudulent documents and misrepresentations driven by the commission-based model were also uncovered.

In Australia, the Knight Review of the Student Visa Programme (March 2011) noted that “…there were some 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”.

It goes on to add: “The point is, if the conditions are created for some agents to act opportunistically, they will do so…Serious problems with agents arise when they creatively assist applicants to ‘meet’ the selection criteria or when they recruit naïve applicants onto courses run by unscrupulous providers.

“We need better monitoring of agents and more effective sanctions against agents who act unethically.”

Likewise, the UK reviewed its student visa programme and incorporated a series of additional requirements to mitigate the abuse of student visas for immigration purposes. As a result of these policy changes, 474 UK colleges had had their licence to recruit international students revoked by the end of 2011.

These quality and integrity risks occurred despite the relatively small size of both the Australian and British higher education systems and a high degree of government regulation and expectations of transparency from agents and institutions.

In fact, the Knight Review suggested increased monitoring of agents by making it mandatory to track the agent involved in student recruitment using Australia’s information system for maintaining international student records.

So the commission-based agency model that has contributed to the success of Australia and the UK in terms of increasing international student numbers has threatened their security, social stability and reputation despite stringent government regulation and a relatively small higher education system.

How would an education system as large, diverse and autonomous as the American one be expected to safeguard its reputation with commission-based recruitment agents?

Managing risk, preserving integrity, considering alternatives

Agents do have a role to play in information dissemination and counselling to prospective students, but the issue becomes complex and risky when commission-based agents trespass into handling admissions material.

There is every incentive to ‘package’ the student because the commission not only depends on it, but a successful admission leads to student satisfaction and future business referral, irrespective of the student's credentials.

This is not to suggest that all agents are engaged in fraudulent activities. However, at the crux of these issues is the inherent bias that is the result of the compensation mechanism. Moreover, institutions face an even bigger challenge of monitoring actual practices adopted by agents operating thousands of kilometres away.

So, should institutions use agents or not?

It’s a decision that depends on an institution's profile, needs and priorities – a few are successfully working with agents, others would never use them, some will start using agents. And then there are a few like Dickinson State University who muddied their reputation and have stopped using them completely.

Institutions, regardless of any relationship with paid agents, must adopt policies and practices designed to preserve the integrity of their international admissions process.

Using commission-based agents to quickly drive up international student numbers increases the risk that standards will be lowered, that documents will be fraudulent and that there will be other shoddy practices afoot, for which most institutions in the US are not adequately prepared.

Thus, institutions should use preventive measures in the admissions process to minimise the risk of misrepresentation and manipulation by agents.

For example, if the best practice in US admissions is to obtain official transcripts directly from the sending institution, there is no reason to compromise that by allowing agents to handle academic records.

Institutions should also consider compensation mechanisms beyond commission-based models and restrict agents’ responsibility to advising and counselling. Another approach for managing risks in agency relationships is to mandate a high degree of transparency from agents towards students and institutions.

There are also emerging recruitment solutions that could sideline the need for agents. They relate to the use of social media, alumni engagement, state consortia, pathways programmes and representative offices.

It is ironic that in the world of the internet, we are missing the most obvious channel of communication with prospective students – social media.

Another solution related to social media is the use of alumni. I call them ‘zero-commission’ agents, as they are brand ‘agents’ of the institution who do not charge any fee.

Finally, state consortia like reach prospective students in a cost-effective manner by collectively marketing a destination. Moreover, there are more infrastructure-intensive approaches for starting pathways programmes at the institution or establishing representative or regional offices in key source countries.

Although these solutions do not provide the quick ramp-up of numbers that commission-based agents do, they are highly effective in the medium to long term. We should not forget the lesson learned from Australian and British experiences that quantity comes at the expense of quality.

Some argue that the train has left the station and with commission-based agents we are being promised an express train that will take us to our destination in the shortest time. What we are not being told is how difficult applying safety brakes on that train can be.

The train has already passed by the UK and Australia and exposed the risks of moving too quickly. Yes, some of us want to be on the express train, but we need to make sure that it has good brakes so we can reach our destination safely.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.