Agent usage in HE 'logical' and 'growing'

11, September, 2014


The usage of agents for international student recruitment is a “logical response” to the rising global demand for higher education, and both institutions and students are largely satisfied with the service they receive, according to a new report.



Meetings between educational institutions and agents at the recent Alphe UK 2014 workshop


Released by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), The Agent Question examines insights from students, universities and agents within higher education recruitment, finding that agent usage is widespread in most key destinations and recruitment markets.

OBHE states the report was stimulated by tension between widespread agent usage and opposition by critics, but concludes usage is a logical response to demand. “Agents navigate the cultural, language, information and geographical divides between prospective students and institutions, and are designed to effect more elegant solutions to the demand and supply equation. In the face of a wide range of institutions seeking to recruit internationally, but little means for the prospective student to objectively evaluate institutional claims, agents offer ‘translation’ and perspective,” the report says.

The report found that students were largely satisfied with the agency service they received, regardless of whether they paid a fee or not. Based on a subset of data from the International Student Barometer produced by i-graduate covering students at 47 institutions in the UK, USA and Australia, the highest particular point of satisfaction was knowledge of the application process with an average score of 3.16 (on a one-four scale with four being “very satisfied”), followed by knowledge of higher education (3.05), reduced time/effort on applications (3.05) and help with visas (3.05).

Agent usage was more prevalent in Asia and the Middle East, with 49 per cent of Chinese students citing agent usage and 39 per cent of Turkish students. The report also found a correlation between agent usage and student maturity, with 48 per cent of foundation-level students using an agent, 35 per cent of undergraduate students, 34 per cent of master’s students, but only 12 per cent of students on doctoral programmes. Agency usage has grown across almost all countries over the last five years, the authors said.

In terms of institutions, OBHE surveyed 181 institutions across seven countries and found that in the UK, USA and Canada between 80 and 90 per cent of respondents used agents, albeit with the caveat that the USA result might be unrepresentative based on previous reports by the National Association for College Admission Counselling (Nacac). OBHE research indicated that across a sample of 47 student recruitment markets, Australian institutions had the highest reach with agent partners in an average of 58 per cent of the 47 countries, followed by New Zealand (48 per cent) and the UK (36 per cent).

In terms of the average proportion of international students recruited via agents, Malaysia was most prolific with 56 per cent, followed by Australia (53 per cent) and New Zealand (47 per cent). At 11 per cent the USA-based institutions had the lowest agent-based recruitment ratio among the respondents. Anecdotally, there was evidence of a higher conversion rate for enquiries from agents, the report said.

Most agents are relatively small, the OBHE report found. Using data from the ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer, 72 per cent of agents said they worked for a company with between two and 10 counsellors, and 43 per cent worked in a company with just a single office.

Word-of-mouth was cited as the largest factor in the selection of agents by both institutions, particularly those in more mature international student recruiting destinations, and students themselves.

Less relevance was given to national agency accreditation: around 37 per cent of agents primarily focussed on higher education held British Council certification, with smaller shares holding other national agent training certificates. “In a situation where all certifications are voluntary and most agents place students in many countries, the cost of compliance across multiple regimes is high and the penalties for non-compliance are low and often vague. Unless an agent is heavily focussed on a particular country, the rationale for participation may be less than compelling,” said the report.

The report can be purchased here through the OBHE.


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