Richard Brabner and Professor Graham Galbraith
University of Hertfordshire
Stimulus Paper, July 2013
Our research forms part of the Leadership Foundation membership benefit. Hard copies of this Stimulus Paper have been distributed to all member institutions and the PDF is available for members to download by clicking the image below.
The internationalisation of higher education continues apace. As with any rapidly unfolding endeavour in a competitive sector, activities and practices will emerge and develop more quickly than the ability to regulate or even fully evaluate them. One such activity is the use of agents in international student recruitment. This stimulus paper, from the University of Hertfordshire, takes a step back for such an evaluation. It examines some of the key issues when using agents, and characterises a potentially serious ethical conflict arising from the fact that agents can be paid by both universities and prospective students. Agents enable universities to reach a large number of potential students in local markets. They can also help students to calibrate their choices more effectively and offer support in the application process. On the other hand, there are concerns that some may provide biased information to students, while increasing their own financial gain, and a few cases of financial fraud have been discovered. This paper presents:
Data is presented using four themes: why universities use agents, how agents benefit students, how universities can manage their agents and views on regulation.
The paper draws on similarities in other sectors that face similar challenges - most notably the financial services industry, where 'The temptation for the agent is to steer clients towards products that are less-optimal but serve the financial interests of the adviser.'
Also highlighted are other important aspects of the debate, such as the role of cultural norms in student recruitment (in some parts of Asia, for example, paying intermediaries is an accepted practice in securing places at reputable universities abroad) and the fluid power dynamics between agents and universities.
The authors of this paper propose three types of responses to these challenges: self-regulation by universities, a sector-wide approach and the creation of a self-regulating organisation. They recommend the last response as the most appropriate option for the UK in the context of tightening border controls and a UK tradition of self-regulation.
This paper is an excellent contribution. More data on who does what with agents, and where, will presumably move the debate along even further. A forthcoming report from The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education will provide new data on the use of agents by universities in the major exporting countries and on student attitudes towards agents.
The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education
The expansion of the international student market has coincided with a 'dramatic proliferation' of universities using agents to recruit international students. This practice is controversial due to the apparent conflict of interest between prospecting for students for a particular university, and advising students on that university’s suitability. Our paper analyses the challenges that arise from using agents. We find that there are examples of unethical practice, such as misselling and financial fraud. Yet we also explore the services that agents provide to students and universities, and find that they cannot easily be replicated by organisations that do not face the same inherent conflict of interest. The paper goes on to discuss the current picture in terms of regulation, both in the UK and further afield, and a range of other regulatory options. We conclude by recommending that the UK moves towards a sector-wide system of self-regulation to improve the quality of advice to potential students and reduce the risk of unethical practice.