It has been over a month since home secretary Suella Braverman announced plans to crack down on “unscrupulous” education agents. However, details about the implementation of this new policy remain scant.
If we truly prioritise the wellbeing of students, as both government ministers and universities often claim, we should welcome this objective and provide support to the Home Office and the Department for Education in developing and implementing a policy that safeguards genuine students.
It should be in the best interest of all universities to eliminate bad and unscrupulous agents from the market and allow reputable agents to thrive.
We should stand behind former universities minister Jo Johnson’s call for greater transparency about the role played by education agents and the need for Office for Students to publish agent performance indicators, including visa success rates, non-continuation rates, and completion rates of students supported by agents during their application to and enrolment at UK universities. This data would prove invaluable to prospective international students as well as universities seeking reliable agents while avoiding untrustworthy ones.
However, we encourage the government to go further and mandate universities to disclose the terms of their relationships with agents. These intermediaries, whom universities contract and incentivise to persuade prospective students to choose them over their competitors, should not operate in secrecy.
We estimate that UK universities collectively spent over £500 million on agent commissions last year, yet this area of their operations remains largely hidden.
There should be no room for covert agents within our universities. Prospective students should be able to easily find the names of a university’s agents, the services offered by these agents, and any associated costs students applying through them are expected to bear.
Importantly, prospective students should also be aware of how much universities pay their agents. Prospective students, much like those seeking financial services in the UK through an intermediary, should be able to assess the independence of the advice they receive when choosing one institution over another.
According to a survey conducted by the British Universities International Liaison Association (BUILA) reported in its good practice guide for providers using agents, a significant proportion of UK university international student recruitment staff believe that agents are motivated to send students to institutions offering higher commission fees. Is paying a higher commission than your competitor to your agent really putting the interests of students first?
A reputational risk
Followers of AgentBee, which monitors and reports on the actions of education or international student recruitment agents, are well aware of the many distressing stories where prospective students have been exploited by deceitful and unscrupulous agents who take advantage of their aspirations for an international education. Universities and the government must work together to protect students and prevent reputational damage.
We believe that universities should take much greater responsibility for the actions of the agents they engage to act on their behalf. We endorse the BUILA/Universities UK International (UUKi) recommendations for universities to thoroughly vet prospective agents and continuously monitor their work.
However, we find the guidelines published by BUILA and UUKi puzzling when it comes to commission transparency. The guidelines advise against universities publishing commission fees, arguing that doing so may be perceived as “collusive behaviour.” But it’s not really clear how the publication of agent commission rates constitutes collusive behaviour in the education industry and not, for example, in the financial services sector, or how it compares to other actions taken by universities, such as the way they publish their international tuition fees.
There’s a risk that the sector is perceived as concealing the escalating costs of international student acquisition and the sometimes uncomfortably close relationships between university recruiters and the growing number of commercial intermediaries involved in the international student mobility industry. As well as agents, these intermediaries can include a range of other actors such as rankers, portions of the education press, international student loan providers, student accommodation companies, pathway providers, and student travel and international student concierge services.
It’s agents all the way down
Close observers of the international recruitment ecosystem are well aware of the growing footprint of agent aggregators. Whilst so-called “master agent-sub agent” relationships have long existed, what’s new under the sun is the sheer size and complexity of these operations. The aggregators operate at increasing scale, in many cases subcontracting with thousands of sub-agents around the world. The aggregators’ growing influence has further undermined efforts at greater transparency, given that few if any of them make public their list of sub-agents.
It is good to see that some Australian universities are now actively considering transparency of agent commissions, much to the chagrin of the International Education Association of Australia which opposes commission transparency. The chief executive of the Group of the Eight, Australia’s Russell Group equivalent, recently asked “why would we not require disclosure of commissions?” and warned the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade that “our reputation… is going to be damaged if we don’t actually address the reputation of our agents and the disclosure and transparency.” It would be great to see individual universities or university groups show leadership in this area. Of course, adding the requirement of commission transparency to the Australian ESOS legislation might have some unintended consequences, such as an increase in non-commission payments, which would need to be carefully considered.
Transparency from agents, universities, and governments is a recurring theme in Student Recruitment Agents in International Higher Education. We had the privilege of editing this book which shares research on the agent industry and highlights best practices from agents, university recruiters, and governments. The book also sheds light on the proactive measures taken by the governments of Australia and New Zealand to regulate how their education institutions work with agents. We urge the UK government to also start playing an active role in protecting genuine international students hoping to study in the UK.