Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment

In Vietnam, where cheating runs rampant and ethical business practices are in short supply, the world of educational consulting is no exception. An unfortunate reality is that most education agents are sub-standard in terms of both quality and ethics.

Let’s face it – anyone can create a Google Sites website and a Facebook fanpage, hang out a sign and begin the frantic search for clients and partners. Unfortunately, not everyone has the requisite education, experience, standards and moral compass to do it the right way and succeed in the long-term.

As in other Asian countries, the reality is that most Vietnamese parents and students work with education agents instead of applying directly to United States and other foreign colleges and universities, EducationUSA fantasies notwithstanding.

Their challenge is to find an agent who provides quality service at a reasonable cost and whom they can trust to do what’s in the best interests of themselves and their children.

Whatever it takes?

In what has become an intensely competitive market – there are thousands of education agents in Vietnam – many companies attempt to secure some kind of competitive advantage, any kind of competitive advantage, by hook or by crook.

This runs the gamut from cheating one’s clients, facilitating fraud and involving their clients as co-conspirators – for example, encouraging the use of and even producing fraudulent documents such as fake bank statements and academic transcripts for the visa application process for less than stellar students for an extra charge, naturally – to copying other companies’ websites and services lock, stock and barrel.

In Vietnam, wholesale and shameless imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.

Why create when you can copy?

The prevailing mentality is why invest elbow grease when you can copy and paste? Of course, copying and executing are two completely different things – just like saying something doesn’t make it so.

I’m reminded of a quote by Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame: “My attitude was that competition can try to steal my plans and copy my style. But they can’t read my mind; so I’ll leave them a mile and a half behind.” (From Grinding It Out: The making of McDonald’s)

In this February 2014 article entitled “Why copycats are the best thing to happen to your company”, Brian Wong, CEO and co-founder of Kiip, a mobile rewards network based in San Francisco, puts a positive spin on this trend – not unique to Vietnam – by noting that “what is a copycat business other than evidence that you’ve created a solution that taps into and services a real need?”

He also reminds trailblazers about “the importance of concentrating on the road ahead, not who’s lurking in your rearview mirror. Copycats have no visibility into the inner workings of your company or what you have in store. No matter what, you’ll be ahead of the curve because they can only replicate what you show them.”

While I like to see new companies created, especially those that have something new to offer the market and-or can improve existing practices, I’d prefer to see them do it the old-fashioned way by adhering to a set of ethical standards, not by cheating.

At the end of the day, ethical business practices translate into good business. In the field of education there are many opportunities to do well and do good, but too few companies keep their eyes on the prize, preferring to set their sights on short-term profit at any cost.

Innovation over imitation

My advice to the wannabes – innovate don’t imitate! Content over form. Vietnam will not rise in the global economic food chain unless there is more innovation across-the-board.

Chances are, you don’t have the education, experience and network to outperform your competition, which means you’ll always be a step or two (or three) behind. Chances are, the hopes and dreams of today’s business licence approval and grand opening will end up as tomorrow’s old news and bittersweet memories.

I recently gave a keynote address at an annual conference organised by a leadership institute of Vietnam’s premier ITC company. Since my topic was “Intercultural Competence as a Cornerstone of Innovation”, I started off with a few comments about innovation, noting that it’s a hot topic in Vietnam.

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen media references such as "Vietnam needs more innovation: Experts” and “Vietnam needs to foster innovation to sustain growth, report says”.

While there are many examples of innovation occurring in Vietnam, including at the company at which I spoke, a copy and paste mentality is still prevalent.

Vietnam’s economy continues to struggle with more bankruptcies than new businesses being created. One of the issues that will ultimately hold the country back is this penchant for copying and cheating.

It is innovation that will take Vietnam to the next level and help to liberate it from the dreaded middle-income trap. With the demographic dividend window closing in the next 30 years, the clock is ticking. The time to act is now.

How agents cheat students, parents and institutions

Here are some of the ways in which some agents cheat clients and institutions. There is obviously some overlap because cheating is often a double-edged sword with multiple victims. These offences range from the serious to the petty and laughable, from the illegal to the unethical but still legal.

The information presented below, derived from personal experience and the media, is a clear indication that the ‘education company’ scene in Vietnam is still very much a work in progress.

Students and parents
  • • Misrepresentation of host institutions (for example, false advertising)
  • • Ghost essay writing.
  • • Ghostwriters for letters of recommendation.
  • • Creating fake email accounts from which fake teachers can submit their ‘letters of recommendation’ to Common App, for example.
  • • Providing or encouraging the use of fraudulent documents for visa applications (for instance, fake transcripts and ‘customised’ bank statements) for an additional fee.
  • • Creating fake business licences for families to help demonstrate a student’s ‘ability to pay’.
  • • Accepting cash deposits and then absconding with the money.
  • • Charging an ‘application fee’ that exceeds that of the admitting institution.
  • • Mismatch between student qualifications, interests etc and the partner institution profile.
  • • False advertising about host institutions.
  • • Not obtaining official permits for public events, which puts the events and the participants at risk (for example, police can shut down the event and confiscate foreign passports).
  • • Artificially inflating attendance for online events by adding names-email addresses taken, sometimes stolen, from other sources in order to impress the client and prospective clients.
  • • Misrepresentation of students to admitting institutions and their admission committees.
  • • Artificially inflating attendance at physical events, for instance fairs, by paying schools to bus in students, many of whom have little to no interest in the event and thus are not ‘quality students’, or simply paying a service to hire fake students to attend the fair or information session, making it a dog and pony show rather than a legitimate event.
  • • Charging a fee that is much higher than your application fee and calling it an application fee (for example, fee=US$200 and the institution’s application fee is US$50).
Most agents are not choosy about the types of institutions they work with, as long as they make money.

  • • No business licence (that is, operating illegally).
  • • No licence to offer educational advisory services (a licensed business but not authorised to be an education agent).
  • • No individual adviser or counsellor licences based on successful completion of a certificate programme and passing an English exam (now a government requirement).
  • • Misleading statements or unauthorised use of images, for example, an agent that has no relationship with an institution posts a scholarship announcement on its website, along with an offer of assistance – that is, making it appear as if a formal relationship exists between the agent and that particular college or university in an effort to create credibility by association.
  • • Making false claims: posting information about a school on a website and-or Facebook page without an agent agreement or that school’s permission.
  • • Double-dipping (that is, taking the full fee and a commission).
  • • Giving competitors ‘1 star’ ratings on their Facebook fanpages.
  • • Buying ‘likes’ for Facebook fanpages.
  • • Putting up a banner in front of a local high school, taking a picture of it, removing the banner and uploading the photo onto the company’s website and-or Facebook page in a lame and free attempt at ‘honour by association’.
  • • Using a well-known competitor’s name in Google AdWords, an example of a dirty trick that is not illegal, but is certainly unethical.
  • • Trying to show how ‘popular’ your promotional YouTube video is by sitting at your computer and repeatedly reloading the page in an attempt to inflate the number of views, not knowing that YouTube is onto this type of digital fraud (Google “YouTube and 301+” to learn more).
Agents behaving badly – The times they are a-changin’

Parents are desperately looking for companies they can trust, that will treat them with respect and not cheat them of out of time and money.

There’s a reason why this has been such a hot-button issue in US higher education and why the Vietnamese government is attempting to regulate this industry by imposing certain criteria that companies are required to meet, including requiring mandatory training and certification for advisers.

According to Decision 05/2013/QD-TTg, proposed by the Ministry of Education and Training and issued by the Prime Minister in January 2013, study abroad education consultancies must also meet the following requirements:
  • • Companies must have VND500 million (US$23,500) on deposit at a commercial bank for each office.
  • • Owners and agents must have a university qualification, be proficient in at least one foreign language and be certified by the Ministry of Education and Training.
In addition, education consultancies must publicise all information about schools in foreign countries, among other requirements. Local departments of education and training are responsible for implementing this decision, which is happening gradually on a nationwide basis.

As with all new approaches, however, it will take a while before the ‘Wild West’ becomes less wild, less greedy and more responsive to the needs and demands of its clients and higher education partners. This type of certification is a step in the right direction.

Rising expectations

There is an encouraging trend of rising consumer expectations in Vietnam.

More and more parents and students are becoming educated consumers. This means that there is both official (government) and grassroots (consumer) pressure for companies to become better than they are.

Competition and effective official oversight will take care of the rest.

To education agents who still play these serious and silly games and who think this is an acceptable way of doing business: marketplace tolerance for cheating and fraud is steadily declining, meaning they will have to ‘shape up or ship out’.

Due diligence

What I tell my foreign higher education colleagues is not to trust any of the come-ons or be seduced by the slick lines in (sometimes) passable English that arrive in their inboxes on a regular basis.

There are some agents who have even learned what cultural buttons to push, including references on their website about how they adhere to the ethical guidelines of NAFSA, the Association of International Educators and NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling – in word only, however.

One made the noble claim that it only permitted regionally accredited institutions to join its US higher education fairs. In reality, it accepted nationally accredited schools because a) it doesn’t know the difference; or b) money is more important than integrity – an empty promise in either case.

I advise colleagues to do their homework, check references, and find out who’s really behind the keyboard on the other side of the world. Due diligence now will save them time, money, frustration and 'lost face’ later.

How to select an agent?

This is a challenge in an industry that is as competitive in the field as it is at home.

Institutions that have well-developed agent networks in Vietnam and other countries are loath to recommend any of their agents; however, most will freely share information about how they screen and select agents and evaluate their performance, above and beyond how many students they send them each year.

There are some colleagues who will go so far as to recommend specific companies or at least alert colleagues to problem agents.

In addition, a growing number of fairs have agent match-making (or speed-dating) sessions. These ‘reverse-agent fairs’ only create an opportunity; it is up to representatives to make a decision, using their gut instinct, information from colleagues and their institution’s criteria about whether or not to work with a particular company.

Once they sign the agreement, they need to nurture the relationship and monitor the partnership on an ongoing basis.

There are external certification bodies such as the American International Recruitment Council, or AIRC, but they have their limitations. For example, it is impossible for AIRC to monitor its certified agents, all 72 of them with offices in more than 300 cities in 90 countries, with a US-based staff of four.

So, while AIRC represents progress in the realm of international student recruitment and quality assurance, its ‘accreditation lite’ for agents is not a magic bullet.

US colleagues can also check with the US Commercial Service office in that country (Note: Most do not have a formal vetting process, which can be problematic).

Other useful information can be obtained from relevant professional associations, such as NAFSA and NACAC, including its new guide for working with agents, International Student Recruitment Agencies: A guide for schools, colleges and universities, which “details concrete steps institutions can take to engage with agencies responsibly”, according to the description on the NACAC website.

A look ahead

In recent years the Vietnamese government, through the Ministry of Education and Training, has made considerable progress in addressing the havoc wrought by the unholy trinity of unscrupulous education agents, foreign rogue providers – that is, unaccredited schools – and the sale of fake education credentials.

The long-term challenge will be enforcement of new rules and regulations. The good news in the short term is this: the notion that doing business ethically makes for better business, in addition to being the right thing to do, is slowly but surely making inroads in Vietnam.

* Mark A Ashwill PhD is the managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Ashwill served as country director of the Institute of International Education, or IIE, in Vietnam from 2005-09, during which time IIE-Vietnam administered EducationUSA. Capstone Vietnam works exclusively with regionally accredited institutions of higher education in the US – the gold standard of accreditation – and officially accredited institutions in other countries. Dr Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.