Is it time to tighten up the regulation of international agents?

Jim Dickinson reviews a new report on international agents and asks if it's time to crack down on sharp practice.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

A new report proposes the creation of a UK-wide quality framework that will ensure the higher education sector can strengthen its relationship with education agents and position the country as a high-quality study destination.

A Partnership for Quality: A Route to a UK Quality Framework with Education Agents recommends a framework initiative co-designed in partnership with education agents and students to ensure widespread adoption.

The sector-wide initiative would create a national Code of Ethical Practice for UK Education Agents, and review and revamp communication and training to increase access and engagement. It would also develop a good practice guide for UK providers.

But is this an initiative that’s required? And will it fix the problems it’s designed to address?

Welcome to Oxford

It’s the “oldest independent business school in Oxford”. I have no idea if the stories I heard a few years back of international students arriving at the Oxford Business College thinking it was Oxford University were true (surely not), but either way there was a good piece in the FT the other week from its Shanghai Correspondent Thomas Hale on the business of international recruitment.

It quotes William Murphy, a senior lecturer in engineering geology at the University of Leeds, who in the article says that many in the sector are unaware of the commercial relationships that underpin recruitment, and just assume that international students “magically appear” because of the reputation of the university. “That does happen, but less often than is thought,” he says.

The article is peppered with hair-raising tales:

Kenan says that, based on his conversation with an agent at home, he was under the impression he would be studying at Manchester university itself rather than with an education company. When he complained, the agent replied that he had chosen to go.”

Some of the piece focuses on protection for students:

In other sectors there’s clearer consumer protection… when I go to an agent to give me advice about my mortgage, I will understand the terms on which that agent will give me that advice. A student doesn’t know that.”

Some of it focuses in the business practices of agents and recruiters:

The recruiter was required to make a high volume of calls — about 80 a day. In her view, only a fraction of the students she spoke to seemed suitable for international study.”

And there are other sections that link back to the immigration aspect of the whole industry:

Chaudhary believes the wider industry around international study arose “from desperation”. For students, he says, education abroad is “like this promise that life is going to get better once you leave this place”.

There are clearly risks here, so much so that Gavin Williamson asked OfS to look at this whole area in September 2019. Then just over a year ago OfS launched its review of admissions, and said:

We are interested in the experiences of international students who may be working with recruitment agents through their application.”

The detail in the doc pointed out that while most English higher education providers now use agents to recruit international students, relatively little is known about the role that recruitment agents play in supporting their admissions strategies. It also noted that the British Council had argued that there’s no national framework or set of regulations governing the way universities work with international recruitment agents, calling for:

Greater transparency about university-agent relationships and the basis on which advice by agents is given”.

OfS was also concerned over transparency about the role of recruitment agents – the way and amount they’re paid, whether commissions/bonuses are used, applicant awareness of the role and motivations of recruitment agents (especially where their role is framed as “advisory”) and transparency about the ways in which applications handled by recruitment agents are then processed by providers.

TL;DR – it has the potential to all be a bit murky, has probably outgrown what existing frameworks are out there, and needs a look at.

Going nowhere fast

The problem as it stands is that that work gone doesn’t feel like it’s gone anywhere. OfS paused its admissions review weeks after it launched, and then found that review torpedoed by DfE’s own admissions review – very much a “focus down on PQA for home UGs” affair that now leaves OfS’ rather wider strands fairly… stranded.

This all matters quite a bit, not least because according to this investigation universities are spending £1,427 per EU student and £2,261 per non EU International student on agents. The reasons given for using agents in that article are to “ensure students feel supported before arrival” and “support applicants through a complicated process”, which may be true, but it’s also true that we pay famously benevolent estates and lettings agents “to make sure potential buyers feel supported through a complicated process”.

It turns out that this is quite a well regulated area – in other countries. Back in 2000 for example the Australian government passed something called the Education Services for Overseas Students Act, and has both accreditation and training schemes for agents and a code of practice governing their operation.

But even this “highly regulated” approach isn’t perfect. This terrific paper from Pii-Tuulia Nikula discusses education agent regulation in Australia (and New Zealand) and concludes that more can be done on due diligence of all new education agents, compulsory and written contracts so governments can hold providers accountable, making providers explicitly responsible for agent training, enhanced transparency in the use of agents and, crucially, monitoring of their practice(s) rather than just looking at issues like complaints or student satisfaction.

When that DfE/OfS intervention appeared at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the British Universities’ International Liaison Association (BUILA), working with the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), commissioned education consultancy Edified to develop evidence to inform those interventions, map the landscape, get feedback from agents, students and providers and make some recommendations.

There’s some fascinating findings. It reckons that half of the 203,000 new international students from beyond the EU that UK institutions enrolled in 2018/19 used education agent services to help gain admission and to navigate the UK’s visa processes. Nearly all (93 per cent) of HEI staff surveyed agreed that “education agents are essential to the success of international education in the UK and integral to their provider student recruitment strategy”.

But there are issues. 70 per cent of international students would recommend their education agent to others and 85 per cent felt that the advice their education agent provided was accurate. That’s potentially a hell of a lot of UK students who feel they’ve been given false information by the people selling UK HE. 31 per cent of providers said that agents push students to the institutions where they receive the highest commission rate, and 24 per cent of students thought their agent was biased towards certain universities.

And since arriving in the UK, 29 per cent of students surveyed said they’d been approached by other agents trying to poach them towards other universities.

Another quality code

The solutions the report proposes will help – a UK-wide quality framework that will include a national Code of Ethical Practice for UK Education Agents, a review and revamp of communication and training to increase access and engagement, and a good practice guide for UK providers. That sort of thing.

But do the recommendations go far enough? There’s quite a bit in the report that suggests that Competition and Markets Authority guidance helps protect prospective students from some of the risks, but the chances of home students being aware of their rights under consumer protection law are pretty low, let alone someone applying from another country.

It also continues to be unclear who would be liable if an agent told outright lies about a provider, and the extent to which a provider should both check what agents do, and take action if they find a problem – issues that the UK fashion industry turned a blind eye to for too long.

The report makes clear that existing institutional complaints processes should be promoted so that individual students can obtain redress if something goes wrong. Oddly, it stops short of recommending that bizarre rules that exclude applicants from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s purview should be changed.

As well as complaints, there’s also stuff on student feedback – the idea being that those two things will address concerns. But as OfS said in 2019 over consumer protection generally, “we should consider whether a model that relies primarily on individual students challenging a provider … places a burden on students in an undesirable way”. This area needs regulation.

(Most) universities are charities, and over in the charity sector there’s a health debate about transparency over the costs of fundraising. The report stops short of recommending that commission paid to agents is automatically revealed, and merely recommends that students be made aware of which HEI works with which education agent, what services the education agent is contracted to deliver and the commercial nature of the relationship.

“I think the root issue,” says Eddie West, assistant dean at San Diego State University in that FT piece, “is students and families by and large are unaware oftentimes of the commission incentives at work behind the scenes of the advice they’re receiving”. Mandatory openness would serve everyone, surely?

And then there’s that issue of advice. Try getting a mortgage in this country and you’re rightly bombarded by types of regulation that allow you to differentiate between “advice” and “sales”, and carefully handle the behaviours, training, standards and ethics of those in the financial advice industry. It’s bizarre, if you think about it, that financial commitments in the education space that are similar in size have almost none of that regulatory paraphernalia surrounding them.

Overall, the thing about this sort of area is the level of risk. Getting due diligence and in-country monitoring right may well end up being quite expensive – but it may also be the cost of doing (good, educational, ethical) business. Even if a tiny number or percentage of agents were to indulge in sharp practice, the reputational issue would reverberate quickly and could be devastating for UK HE.

That OfS admissions review reminded us that in 2017, a BBC Panorama programme investigated the use of education agents who were recruiting bogus students to courses at Levels 4 and 5, such as Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas, at some “alternative” providers so that they could claim student loan funding that they were not entitled to.

But agent conduct isn’t an issue that should concern just the emergent fringes of the sector. We may be one more episode of Panorama away from a whole host more of dodgy practices being exposed – and this time it could be mainstream universities that could be in the frame. OfS should restart that admissions review and regulate in this area if it’s serious about protecting this group of students’ interests.

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