Agents under the microscope – Essential tool or necessary evil?

Recruitment agents are a logical response to the dramatic rise in demand for higher education around the world – and for cross-border higher education in particular – a comprehensive review of the industry has found.

But while student satisfaction with agents is broadly high, there is widespread criticism, suspicion and allegations of abusive practices, says the report for the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, or OBHE.

Agents are also a consequence of universities actively turning to international student recruitment to bolster their finances as they come under pressure to be more entrepreneurial.

The report, The Agent Question: Insights from students, universities and agents, was commissioned as a result of tension between widespread agent use by prospective students and institutions, and determined opposition by critics.

“More demand, supply and marketing, and the pace of change in many countries, spurred the development of intermediaries. Students, parents and institutions enjoy wider enrolment horizons but many feel ill-equipped to ‘go it alone’.”

Some findings

There are an estimated 23,000 ‘student recruitment agencies’ globally, ranging from single person businesses to multinational companies. Most are active in international recruitment, where both students and institutions may be at a disadvantage geographically and culturally, and turn to a knowledgeable agent to close the gap.

“Education agents of one kind or another operate in almost every country in the world, but are considered mainstream in some places and marginal or illegitimate elsewhere,” says the report by i-graduate a company that tracks student and stakeholder opinions.

“In some countries, agents are regulated, in others not; and regulation may be considered progressive, punitive or inadequate, depending on one's point of view, and is almost certainly dynamic.”

A large majority of students and institutions that use agents are ‘broadly satisfied’ with the service they receive, according to the report. It concludes that “student overall satisfaction with agents is similar to student satisfaction with institutions”.

It adds: “The range in agent performance, however that is defined, is emblematic of the variation one inevitably finds within any industry or sector, not evidence of any inherently negative character of the agent model as such.

“If done well, evolving regulation, in host and destination countries, will help accentuate the benefits of agents and minimise scope for bad practice.”

The controversy

But the report describes the controversy: “Widespread use of agents has raised concerns about admissions standards and conflict of interest.

“The main charge is that any arrangement where the agent benefits financially on a per-enrolment basis encourages admission of poorly qualified applicants, mismatches between student and institution, and even outright fraud.”

Anecdotal evidence cites cases of forged recommendation letters, fraudulent transcripts, phantom test-takers and even faked Skype interviews in which more-fluent English speakers took the place of prospective students.

But the report says: “There is no question that suspect and outright fraudulent practice exists, and may be relatively extensive, particularly in some countries.

“But to conclude that therefore ‘all agents are bad’ or that agents should be abolished is akin to saying that the widespread phenomenon of diploma mills means that all universities are bad and should be abolished.”

Agent use

In 2013, almost all universities in some major destination countries used education agents, but only about a third of international students did. The ratio has grown substantially in recent years, and is considerably higher in major markets, notably China.

Asian and Middle Eastern students are much more likely to report use of agents compared to students from Europe and North America.

The report suggests: “This may reflect language and cultural differences, the novelty of mass higher education and greater resort to foreign study in Asia and the Middle East. The combination of less mature students and longer programmes of study produce the highest incidences of agent use.”

In destination countries where agent use is widespread – for example Australia and New Zealand – they are more significant for would-be students than websites. It is the opposite for destination countries where agents have a low profile, for example Germany.

“Yet even for the United States, where many institutions disavow use of agents, international students enrolled in the US cite agents as of equal importance to institutional websites,” the report says.

Agents are paid a fee averaging US$500 by students and around US$2,000 by universities. This masks a range of from nil to US$5,000+ for student fees. Almost half of students either pay nothing or no more than US$1,000, and about a quarter pay US$3,000 or more.