Internationalisation and recruitment agents: The missing link?

Recruitment agents now play a significant role in the internationalisation strategies of British universities that rely on their services in an increasingly competitive market.

While Australia and New Zealand have a long history of working with agencies, a key moment in the UK was when Tony Blair launched the Prime Minister’s Initiative 1 in 1999.

In the wake of its ambitious targets for international student recruitment, universities began to strengthen and develop relationships with particular agents and agencies in certain areas of the world.

Currently, most universities have established ‘international offices’ whose main function is to liaise with, inform, develop relationships with and regulate recruitment agents. Universities pay for the agents’ services through commission (a fixed percentage of the student tuition fee) and additional incentives such as briefing visits to the UK and even iPads.

Nonetheless, concerns about the unethical practices of some agents have resulted in the establishment of various codes of practice. The first international initiative, known as the ‘London Statement’, was launched in 2012.

Such policy developments signal a shift in attitude on the part of the higher education sector from viewing agents with varying degrees of suspicion to the widespread acknowledgement that agents are here to stay.

However, initiatives such as the London Statement that set out to regulate the conduct of agents could be seen as subtly shifting ethical responsibilities from the universities on to the agents. This policy focus on agents has also served to divert attention from the larger processes associated with the commercialisation of higher education that led to the need for agents in the first place.

Income generation vs learning resource

Our interest in the agents’ two-way role in mediating communication between the UK university and the prospective student has given us insights not only into the role the agent plays but also into how university practices, values and internationalisation strategies are being shaped by marketisation.

As integral to most UK universities’ internationalisation strategies, agents can be seen to support and perpetuate a narrow instrumental approach that equates internationalisation primarily with generating international sources of revenue.

Yet, as academics working with international students, we are aware of the learning opportunities and challenges that an increasingly diverse educational community can bring.

Experiences from international students on our courses have made us rethink many of our deeply embedded assumptions about learning and teaching, as well as administrative practices within the wider university. We see international students as an important resource in terms of enhancing both staff and students’ inter-cultural learning.

However, with the increasing dominance of an economic rationale for internationalisation, we question how to make an institutional shift towards what has been termed a ‘transformative’ approach.

Reconceptualising the role of recruitment agents within the internationalisation agenda could be a first step. From our interviews with masters students we learned how services offered by the agent vary greatly: they range from providing information about which universities applicants were likely to get into with their current grades, to navigating the bureaucratic processes of applying for a UK visa, to helping them write their university application.

Yet interviews with a small sample of recruitment agents have revealed how they also see themselves as ‘educators’. An agent in Taiwan explained how she saw her role as helping clients to adopt a ‘healthy concept about pursuing international higher education’ rather than making multiple applications.

An agent in Japan, comparing his own experience of applying to a UK university many years ago, felt that applicants needed his help to navigate and interpret the vast amount of information now available on the internet.

Several agents complained about their clients’ ‘over-dependence’ on them, expecting the agent to read emails from the university and write the responses. In many respects, the agents were not only ‘hand-holding’ or selling UK universities to prospective students.

They could also help their clients make the transition to another country and higher education system, through informally sharing their cultural insights and experiences (often they too had been international students in the UK).

Limitations of a market approach

There is no doubt that agents are both the result of and contribute to an increasingly instrumental approach to internationalisation, based on the imperative of international student recruitment as a vital income stream. Consequently perhaps, research on recruitment agents has largely been conducted from a marketing perspective, analysing consumer and agent behaviour.

Our recent foray into this field has highlighted the limitations of researching higher education as a product that is marketed. Adopting a more holistic perspective on agents as engaged in inter-cultural communicative practices enables us to position them also as ‘educators’.

Rather than measuring agents’ success in terms of offers converted into places – as international offices do at present – we need to understand more about how they influence students’ expectations and consequent experiences of their courses.

This is not just in terms of the information provided about the institution or their course, but also the informal learning of unfamiliar communicative practices and new relationships that later shape the international student’s transition to UK higher education.

Viewing the student’s application and admission to an overseas university in terms of a collective endeavour – within which the agent is one part – could help us develop a more holistic approach to internationalisation in universities.

Anna Magyar and Anna Robinson-Pant are based at the Centre for Applied Research in Education, or CARE, University of East Anglia, UK. To read about the Society for Research in Higher Education scoping project on which this piece is based, see the report on The Role of Recruitment Agents in the Internationalisation of Higher Education.