Agencies aren’t the only issue in international admissions

Agents that recruit international students are under the spotlight - but what can be done? Meely Doherty explains the issues that come across her desk

Meely Doherty is Academic Officer at York SU

International agencies recruiting students are often allocated the blame for some of the questions that surrounding international student admissions in the UK.

But the harsh truth that agencies can’t be to blame for all international admissions problems.

IELTs are a broken test for English language proficiency – and pre-sessional courses, while able to help with the language barrier, often can’t address the cultural differences.

Setting up shop

Universities turn to agencies to find an increasingly necessary international student population, setting up shop in countries like China and India, and ultimately encouraging these students to fly thousands of miles into the United Kingdom for study.

Students are led to believe that there is a low cost of living, that their every need (financial, welfare, academic, and graduate) will be catered for, and are assured with promises of guaranteed accommodation, significant levels of support, and an experience to never forget.

But increasing numbers of students that agencies recruit find that this is not the case.

These promises wouldn’t be such a bad thing – if they were true. Agents tell students what they need to hear to get the students on the plane and paying thousands in tuition, but it is universities who have to support these students when they land.

Who pays the agents?

It’s convenient for universities to point fingers at shambolic and cunning agencies who exploit students to attend universities they can’t afford, potentially won’t enjoy, or even struggle to attain in – ignoring the fact that they are the ones paying the agency to begin with.

Universities invest millions of pounds in supporting international students, and just as many millions in recruiting them. They then find themselves navigating a complex scenario where students are unable to keep up with courses, while simultaneously these students often do not communicate their needs, worsening problems of isolation or cultural segregation – through no fault of their own.

Attempts to live up to the expectations set by agencies have consequences that more far-reaching than we might expect. For universities, it requires costly investments into professional services staff specialised in international student support – in every space from the Library to Careers to Disability Services.

For international students recruited through the agencies, there’s often increased loneliness and anxiety, and yet lower chances of them reaching out for support. And for their home counterparts, often there is a growing feeling of being “left behind” or even replaced and pushed out – as their universities prioritise international recruitment and, often, international support.

Walk in the park

Beyond the University, though, there’s a systemic issue that neither agency nor university wants to acknowledge – it’s not easy to be an international student. From the growing restrictions on a graduate visa to the removal of dependents, there’s the clear message that the government does not see the value in international students or their families.

While SU-led campaigns exist to protest more support for these students, there’s still the knowledge that, for a lot of students, there’s barriers beyond their academic life. Even ignoring barriers to entry, registering for a GP, finding a place to live, and even figuring out the tax system in the UK means that students rely on their agencies to help guide them through a number of processes, especially if they speak English as their second language – which makes universities’ complicity even more apparent.

And removing agencies completely could, in the long-term, do more harm than good, by forcing students to navigate these waters alone.

It might seem like doom and gloom, but there are some things we can do to help. SUs and International Students Associations can provide much-needed social support.

Universities can vet and more closely monitor their agencies – and talk to the students they recruit – to ensure that they’re recruiting students who will excel and benefit from their studies.

The interview process can help universities determine whether a student will truly excel on the course, and if they need support that the university can provide. And the government can support universities to be places of education, not businesses, removing the need for international recruitment for higher education’s survival.

There are a lot of questions about what, why, and how we recruit international students. Ultimately, the benefits of international students’ recruitment are immense – they bring new perspectives and ideas, informed by their experiences, providing greater cultural competencies and improving the quality of our teaching and learning.

But this can not be at the expense of their experience, and as SU Officers, we often spend a lot of time working with students who feel university didn’t live up to their expectations. Universities, the UK government, and agencies all need to work together to ensure that we’re putting students first – not finances.

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