World leading international education needs world leading agent regulation

There has been a “significant focus” on recruitment practices relating to international students in recent weeks.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Much of that focus came from the Sunday Times last weekend, which as well as levelling what looked like unfair criticism on foundation and international year one programmes, also had some pretty unpleasant footage of the antics of agents.

In March 2021 I asked if it was time to tighten up the regulation of international agents. It was then, it was when Vincenzo Raimo and Pii-Tuulia Nikula called for it last year, and it is now.

The good news is that following a board meeting, Universities UK has done that thing it does when a slow burning problem manifests above the parapet – it scrambles to put some processes in place to attempt to placate ministers and fend off formal (external) regulation.

Central to the announced “immediate actions” are a review of the Agent Quality Framework (AQF) to “ensure adoption”, and recommendations on how the AQF (and wider UK data infrastructure) can be enhanced to “identify and address bad practice and improve resilience”.

It hopefully goes without saying that whatever form the framework takes, it obviously should be compulsory. That will feel like burden to some – but it’s hard to find anything in the framework as currently described that you wouldn’t argue is pretty essential when recruiting people from another country to spend a lot of money to come study in the UK.

Good burden, in other words.

Back when the Office for Students (OfS) was going to look at agents in 2020 (only to then say nothing on its wider admissions review and then to drop it completely a year later), I had all sorts of conversations with international student officers in SUs about what they thought would help.

The horror stories were plentiful then (and really should have been picked up and acted on earlier), and have only grown – but spilt milk and all that. There’s now a proper opportunity to sort the issue(s) out, and it’s crucial I think that this doesn’t turn into a process that looks busy but achieves little.

So as well as sign up to the code being mandatory, UUK really should take active steps to improve it too.

As such it’s important to remember that both New Zealand and Australia have formal regulation in this space – in the former, for example, the Education (Pastoral Care of Tertiary and International Learners) act’s Code of Practice was updated in 2021, and covers plenty of issues that relate to welfare, induction, housing and diversity.

But for the purposes we’re dealing with here, it also very much looks at how courses and universities are sold. If nothing else, it should be a start point.

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.

Here’s ten things that I think could help. The UK has a chance to be world beating here. If it chooses to be.

  • Involve students: It’s pretty critical, I think, that students are engaged in any review group both by being members of it and by commissioning some short and sharp engagement and research exercises that interrogate the problem from a student perspective. A “lived experience of interacting with agents” approach (rather than questions from the wrong perspective) would help.
  • Fair admissions: It goes without saying that principles of the fair admissions code (last looked at over another “scandal above the parapet” scramble over unconditional offers) should be applied and refined for international agents – including thinking about any “pressure selling” tactics that might be in use, and the practice of pretending that sticker price discounts are “talent scholarships”.
  • Practices and scrutiny: As currently drafted, providers sign the code, which has both principles and suggested practices. NZ’s law has “objectives” to include – a better framing. And a code review should at the very least involve compulsory external peer review/audit of achievement of objectives, using the practices in the code as a “comply or explain” starting point.
  • Mystery shopping: Some practices are more important than others. The idea that providers currently “trust” a lot of what agents say is obviously problematic given the incentives and the distance – testing out the reassurances should be mandatory.
  • Feedback: As it stands the Code suggests gathering feedback from students on arrival on the accuracy of information about the university/course provided. Not only is that too early, it’s too narrow – NZ’s code covers lots of other lies that can be told, and information that students need – including accurate and up to date info on housing, cost of living and consumer rights. The feedback should gathered later, transparently and publically acted on, and a key, standardised information set on the programme and university would help too.
  • Totals: (Most) universities are charities, and over in the charity sector there’s a healthy debate about transparency over the costs of fundraising. So as well as students being made aware of which universities work with which education agent, what services the education agent is contracted to deliver, the commercial nature of the relationship and the fee handed over, there should be easy to access data on the total spend on agents published by each university.
  • Complaints: The inability of students to access the OIA over admissions issues remains a problem. UUK should engage with it to voluntarily shift that position so that students can get redress if they can’t get it internally.
  • Responsibility: A surprising number of students I’ve spoken to don’t realise the relationship involves commission, are shocked by how much it likely is and are amazed at the idea that if an agent lies to them, the buck stops with the university. Standard information on relationships and commission transparency should be a minimum – as well as emphasising that what an agent says on behalf of a university is just like what a university says itself, and so they should be able to hold said university to account if the agent engages in misleading actions or misleading omissions – both over the programme and course, and on wider issues like cost of living and housing.
  • (I should add that the current code’s insistence that universities publishing commission fees may be perceived as “collusive behaviour” sound like nonsense to me – especially given the regime that reveals such fees in the financial services sector. We need a proper view from the CMA if that’s to be ruled out – I suspect they’d be more worried about international students as a text book example of vulnerable consumers).
  • Confidence: There are major issues with international students and complaints confidence – not helped by the university looking and sounding like an agent of an often hostile state when it comes to immigration. Active steps should be taken to reassure students that they can and should raise problems without fear of reprisals, and raise issues even if they don’t want them taken forward individually.
  • Behaviours: Providers should contemplate some of the more unsavoury behaviours I’ve heard about over the years – including “sex for admissions” stories and astonishing interest on temporary loans to get past the Home Office maintenance test. Making clear those are unacceptable to the university and making to safe to raise them is crucial too.
  • Influencers: The Code should explicitly cover not just agent-agent behaviour but also (often gig economy and/or self-employed) student influencers – who also have incentives to make things look better than they really are. Disappear down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos on the subject for an hour or so and you’ll see what I mean.

Finally, once all that’s done, we should apply it all to domestic agents too. The NAO report a few weeks ago didn’t pick up much ministerial interest – but once a media group remixes its findings and gets into onto the Sunday afternoon call list of a minister, UUK will be forced to scramble again. If the sector is already behind on domestic agents, best get ahead of that media storm now.

2 responses to “World leading international education needs world leading agent regulation

  1. “It is unknown to what extent the hesitance to publish commission rates is due to actual legal concerns, and to what extent it may be due to the desire of universities to consider commissions as commercially sensitive information.” (p. 232 Student Recruitment Agents in International Higher Education)

  2. Good to see this reference the need to involve the student – the Agent Quality Framework does include UKCISA as a partner organisation to help facilitate this, and has also produced a Student Guide which aims to enhance students’ understanding of the process of using an agent (including the payment of commission)

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