Agents – The business case for an ethical approach

I recently heard the headmaster of an international school in the UK describe agents as ‘super parents – the parents that keep on giving’, because of the vital role they play in recruiting new students for his school. It is the same for universities: agents are incredibly important to us.

Universities use agents because they are effective in helping us to meet volume, income and other student recruitment-related targets by, among other things, giving us access to markets that we find difficult to recruit from directly – places like Pakistan and Nigeria, for example. And because in some countries, like India and Taiwan, it is normal for prospective students to use an agent or educational counselling service.

Important to be transparent about work with agents

With the exception of a minority of Russell Group universities, most UK universities make explicit use of recruitment agents.

We are no different at the University of Nottingham. We place a great deal of value on our work with agents and, as well as a considerable spend on commission, we put a lot time and effort into valuing and supporting them.

But unlike some universities, we make no secret of our work with agents. You can get details of all of the agents and recruitment consultants we work with on the University of Nottingham website, and read about the basis of our relationship with them, including how much we pay them for each student they support who goes on to register at the university.

Universities need to talk more about costs of student recruitment as well as the income.

One of the reasons I have been focusing on UK universities’ relationships with agents over the past couple of years, and why I’m speaking on the topic at the International Unit and Universities UK International HE Forum in April, is because I enjoy my job and want to keep it. That means international student recruitment needs to pay, especially now that home students are also paying high fees.

We are very good as a sector at talking about the income we get from international students – more than £5 billion (US$7.4 billion) annually or roughly 10% of our income (and about £80 million a year at Nottingham) – but we are less good at talking about the costs.

A number of British university international office directors tried to benchmark recruitment costs in 2007 in the same way that their counterparts in Australian universities do routinely. According to the UK survey, the average cost of recruiting international students across the participating universities was 9.3% of international tuition fee income – perhaps not too worrying.

But the range of costs was huge – perhaps the reason why some of those international office directors have been unwilling to repeat the exercise – and I am assuming that no one is going to suggest that costs have fallen since 2006-07.

And these are all costs we incur before international students join us. As well as the direct market and recruitment costs, universities need to factor in the increasing costs of supporting international students – in the UK that includes meeting our compliance responsibilities to the UK Border Agency – and that these are all costs we incur before the core teaching and learning starts of a population of international students who are mostly here for one year only, on masters courses.

Standards for agents and universities – A two-way street?

One of the biggest international recruitment costs across the sector is commission paid to agents. At Nottingham our bill, now including VAT, is more than £1.2 million annually.

Paying commission can seem controversial to some, especially in the UK where we don’t have any legislation or formal code regulating the way we work with agents – unlike our counterparts in Australia, New Zealand or even The Netherlands.

The British Council has been running training courses for agents for some years, but these courses are aimed at improving the way agents work rather than being directed at universities.

The so-called London Statement’s seven principles, agreed last year by the British Council and its Australian and New Zealand counterparts, is very focused on improving the way agents work rather than on how universities behave.

The London Statement’s principles are that recruitment agents and consultants must:
  • • Practise responsible business ethics.
  • • Provide current, accurate and honest information in an ethical manner.
  • • Develop transparent business relationships with students and providers through the use of written agreements.
  • • Protect the interests of minors.
  • • Provide current and up-to-date information that enables international students to make informed choices when selecting which agent or consultant to employ.
  • • Act professionally.
  • • Work with destination countries and providers to raise ethical standards and best practice.
But what about how universities should behave? Shouldn’t similar principles apply to us?

I am not arguing for more regulation, but I do think there’s a need for UK universities to give greater scrutiny to their work with agents. And while we don’t have anything as formal as the Australian ESOS Act, we do have guidance provided by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) that could help.

I think we have a responsibility to ask ourselves some very basic questions including:
  • • Is our work with agents consistent with the values of the UKCISA code of ethics?
  • • Does it meet the requirements outlined in the QAA guidance on international students?
  • • Do we openly publish the names of all of those organisations and individuals (agents, school counsellors, schools etc) to whom we pay commission? And if not, why not?
  • • And for those that pay commission to schools, how would you feel if your son or daughter was at a school where the advice on university applications was influenced by which universities pay that school a fee, rather than which was the most appropriate university for them?
Or do we need a more radical answer if we are to avoid the scandals of commission-based mis-selling that have taken place in other sectors?

I clearly think the answer is yes, not just because that would be the ethical thing to do, but also because it makes good long-term business sense.

* Vincenzo Raimo is director of the international office at the University of Nottingham, UK. This is a longer version of an article that originally appeared on the Universities UK site.