How can we monitor education agents more effectively?

Education agent-based international student recruitment is gaining popularity in a number of countries. Even though many of the issues related to this recruitment mode have been widely discussed, significant gaps persist in universities’ and other educational institutions’ understanding of how best to manage their agent relationships.

A new study examines one of the key underlying issues in ethical education agent management: how educational institutions can monitor their education agents.

It is reasonable to assume that if universities and other educational institutions had the full ability to observe education agents’ activities, agents would be more likely to behave in a manner required by the client institutions. In the same way, agents’ awareness of institutions’ limited ability to observe their behaviour means that we can expect more agent misconduct.

Of course, there are other ways to incentivise agents to work in educational institutions’ best interests, such as pre-contract due diligence, the use of contracts and financial incentives.

However, due diligence can only identify some areas of agent behaviour and does not provide intelligence after a contract has been signed. In addition, the limited effectiveness of contracts in this industry has been emphasised in the literature.

Moreover, the widely used commission-based incentive schemes are likely to accentuate many of the problems, rather than solve them.

Hence, besides providing comprehensive training and support for agents, educational institutions need to employ effective monitoring practices to identify misconduct during the relationship. This misconduct can violate the interests of international students or client institutions, or even destination country governments.

Effective monitoring can be perceived as both ethical and business savvy as it allows providers to better protect students’ (and national) interests as well as their own business interests.

Education agent best practice guidelines

Education agent best practice management guidelines have been published in countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, most of these guidelines focus much more on other agent management aspects, overlooking the monitoring requirements of these relationships.

The monitoring techniques that are most commonly recommended in the guidelines are the analysis of agent performance data, student feedback and site visits, whereas less frequently proposed are means such as marketing audits and peer communication.

However, the best use or the benefits and limitations of these monitoring techniques are not explained in much detail. So how effective are, for instance, student feedback and agent performance data?

Student feedback

Collecting student feedback is one of the cornerstones of extant agent monitoring practices. Unfortunately, student feedback has a number of weaknesses. First, students’ bounded rationality means that it is unrealistic to expect a student to be able to evaluate many aspects of the agent-distributed information, such as whether the agent recommended the most suitable study destination or institution.

Moreover, the timing of feedback collection (too late/too early) and the type of data collection used (for example, interviews versus surveys) can bias the results. Identified issues can be based on ‘he said, she said’ type of arguments, where the lack of written documentation is a barrier to drawing reliable conclusions.

Finally, in some instances, students’ and agents’ interests may align, but at the same time violate the interests of the client institution, for instance, tampering of application documentation to help an otherwise non-eligible applicant to be accepted by an institution.

In these situations, student feedback is completely inefficient in identifying issues in agent behaviour.

Moreover, student feedback does not allow an institution to observe the treatment of non-applicants and applicants deciding not to study at the client institution.

Performance data analysis

Performance data analysis can include an analysis of the number of applications, offers, visa approval rates, enrolments and pertinent conversion rates.

More recently, there has been an emphasis on analysing agent-recruited students’ quality by evaluating the after-arrival grade point averages or completion rates of agent-recruited students. However, institutions should be provided with more information about the best ways to interpret these data, for example, who to benchmark against, such as across or within countries and against other agent or non-agent recruited students.

Countries such as New Zealand and Australia have introduced promising initiatives allowing client institutions to better evaluate the behaviour of their agents nationally, rather than limiting the monitoring to institution-specific data.

However, even though the data analysis, alongside student feedback, provides good insights, it will not allow client institutions to observe all areas of agent misbehaviour.

A way forward – mystery shopping?

Even if client institutions employed all the monitoring techniques proposed, they would not be able to observe many important aspects of agent behaviour. One way to overcome the weaknesses associated with other techniques would be to introduce ‘mystery shopping’ as a new monitoring tool. Mystery shoppers are frequently used in other industries as a way to evaluate the quality of services.

These ‘dummy customers’ follow specific instructions and report back to the organisation employing them.

Within the education agent industry, this would allow client institutions to reduce existing information asymmetries by observing areas such as the treatment of non-applicants (ie those prospective students visiting an agent, but deciding not to apply) and identify those situations of misconduct where students’ and agents’ aligned interests may breach the interests of the institution.

Compared to student feedback, it would also result in more reliable and timely information.

Next steps

Without effective monitoring, institutions must accept that they work with agents at least partially blindfolded. Unfortunately, hitherto, the available guidelines have not provided sufficient information about the benefits and limitations of different monitoring techniques.

Also, the evidence on educational institutions’ actual approaches to monitoring and used monitoring practices in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, highlight the limited knowledge of this area of agent management.

The international student recruitment industry needs to be guided towards a better use of the existing techniques as well as a more comprehensive use of mystery shopping to better observe education agents’ behaviour. Effective monitoring will not solve all the issues related to this industry, but it will be a significant step in the right direction.

Pii-Tuulia Nikula and Jussi Kivistö have co-authored research articles on education agent management related issues and education agent monitoring. Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a senior lecturer at the School of Business at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in New Zealand. Most of her research focuses on professional and ethical behaviour in the international education industry. Jussi Kivistö holds the position of professor at the Higher Education Group, faculty of management and business, Tampere University, Finland. He has authored around 80 publications, mainly in the field of higher education management and policy.