The rise and rise of student recruitment agents

Agents do a great deal to prepare international students for studying in the United Kingdom. The British Council’s Student Insight survey of 180,000 prospective international students shows that every year at least a third of the students surveyed say that will definitely use an agent, with another third undecided.

The number of students using agents increased from 10% in 2007 to 28% in 2013. In some countries the use of agents is very high: in China 45% of students use agents, in India 43% and in Nigeria 30%.

Overall this represents 30% of all international non-European Union students enrolled on UK higher education courses. Moreover, over 92% of UK institutions work with agents.

The rise in the number of agents being used is linked to the increase in students seeking an international education.

Despite growing recognition of the value of a UK higher education, British institutions face increased competition from providers in other English-speaking countries: the United States, Australia and New Zealand especially, but also Canada.

They offer good higher education, and provide opportunities for students to switch their status through work-study visas. There is also competition from the growth and development of higher education institutions in countries such as China and Malaysia. Some of these institutions are extremely reputable and many offer international programmes in English.

There is also recognition from universities that a comprehensive agents strategy will bring them hard-working students who are passionate about their subject matter and contribute to their courses.

Why students use agents

But why would students go to an agent? Probably for the same reason that I would employ a plumber to install a new tap.

It’s not that it’s something that I can’t do, but I can’t do a good job of it, and I really need that tap to work properly for the next 20 years, with no leaks or drips, or even worse, the tap coming apart in my hand and the water hitting the ceiling. I don’t have the right skills, knowledge and experience to do the job properly.

I think this is the case for most students who want to take a study abroad programme – it’s not that the knowledge required is impenetrable or you can’t find it, but there are lots of aspects to consider and to find the right course for a student requires specialist skills and knowledge and experience in counselling students.

The British Council Student Insight Survey shows that the most commonly expected agency services are information on obtaining a visa, advice on which institutions to apply for and the provision of information and brochures relating to institutions.

Pre-departure support

Agents would agree with this, but would also include what we might call pre-departure services. And it is this that brings us to the heart of what agents do for students.

Any good agent knows that students and their families have to trust the agent to find the right institution for them. This can be a lengthy process; some students are happy with a more distant relationship, but many want a close relationship with their agent.

They want to know who that person is – so as well as Skype and email there are phone calls and face-to-face meetings. This is particularly important for the English language sector, but applies to higher and further education too. Families need to be sure that their children, no matter how old they are, will be safe.

In counselling students, agents do an invaluable job of screening students prior to their application. They know what institutions are looking for in a prospective student.

By understanding the students’ goals, academic abilities and achievements, both personal and academic, as well as the kind of environment they will be happy in, they can offer good choices to the student. This helps to ensure retention and success on their courses.

Counselling a student might involve further testing and assessment, but certainly involves lengthy interviews to be able to match the student to the right kind of course at the right institution. Students may go and speak to other agents, check university websites themselves or they may drop out of the process altogether, but while this process is unfolding, the agent is available to answer all of the students’ questions.

Agents also are invaluable in getting the student ready for life in the UK. Many agency staff have experience of study abroad themselves and are keen to keep up-to-date with the latest pre-departure guidance and advice from the UK.

They can make sure that students are ready for the teaching and learning methods used in the UK, which may be very different from those in their home country, and answer all their questions about accommodation, safety, about how much things cost and how to shop.

Any agent will tell you that they are usually asked lots of questions about food, the weather and travelling.

As it may be the first time outside the UK, they can help with travel arrangements, from flights to the basics of ‘make sure all your travel documents are in one place’, and make sure students have the contact numbers for emergency support should anything go wrong during their journey.

Finally, if anything goes wrong, they are available on the end of the phone for help with emergency situations.

* Helen Obaje is professional development manager for higher education agents at the British Council, which manages a certified network of agents and gives agents the opportunity to keep up to date with developments in the UK through agent training programmes. You can read more from Helen Obaje about the regulation of agents on the British Council blog.