UK report makes agent recommendations

06, November, 2014

A new report has made a number of recommendations to UK higher education institutions over the usage and recruitment of agents, urging the sector to impose greater self-regulation.

Some UK universities attend agent workshops to meet partner agents

Specific recommendations in the report include being proactive in sourcing agents, seeking legal advice on contracts, producing robust diligence processes, providing support for agents and offering greater transparency.

Managing International Student Recruitment Agents was produced by Vincenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading, Christine Humfrey, Special Professor in International Higher Education at the University of Nottingham, and Iona Yuelu Huang, a Senior Lecturer at Harper Adams University and was funded by the British Council. It was based on interviews with 57 university international office staff on agent usage with the aim of producing a best practice guide.

“Despite the estimated UK£60 million (US$95 million) plus spent in annual commission, very little professional advice and support for universities on working with agents exists,” says the report. “If UK universities do not themselves better regulate the way they work with agents, they could instead face imposed external regulation as has been the case elsewhere.”

The report highlights the integral role that agents play within UK higher education. “It is clearly evident that a high proportion of HE providers work with agents and many have an increasing dependence upon them to help deliver annual intakes. Markets are large, dynamic, difficult and competitive and so a considerable number of HEIs see agents as necessary and a proportion view them as ‘a vital tool’ and ‘a key part of our strategy’.”

Some of the benefits of agents to institutions outlined in the report include: a quick entry to markets and a tool for increasing the diversity of student populations; agents’ ability to spread the institution message wider; a source of local knowledge of markets and cultural interaction; a network of useful local connections; a face-to-face service that many students desire; and new product market research.

“The agent contribution in information transition and help with processing is considered especially important during the UK visa acquisition,” Screening of suitable candidates was perceived as another key service that agents provide: “A number of institutions believe that their agents are performing very well in this sensitive area of screening and then in terms of communicating this to the students as follow up.”

Although some interviewees in the research indicated agents played a role in identifying fraudulent documents, others were concerned that this practice can originate with agents.

According to the survey interviewees, the vast majority of relationships are initiated by agents, with around 95 per cent of contact made directly to the institution. In one of the report’s recommendations, universities are urged to make the first move. “Where there is a case for the need for agents, universities should be more proactive in sourcing agents directly and measuring proposals from different agents against each other and the key criteria for success considered important in individual markets,” the advice states.

The report also examined ways in which institutions support their agent partners, with co-attendance with agents at exhibitions noted as being “of particular importance”. Financial support for agents was a more complicated issue, the authors said, but some respondents reported this as useful in showing support and spreading marketing activities.

Such activities related to one of the report’s recommendations for appropriate support strategies. “It is a crowded space and commission levels alone are insufficient to ensure success. There was no clear relationship in the research between commission levels, institutional status, number of agents and numbers recruited through them, thus pointing to a variety of factors influencing recruitment success through agents.”

In the area of diligence, the report recommends that institutions ask difficult questions, source references and do not rely on British Council training as a guarantee of quality. Another recommendation relates to having a clear structure for continuing diligence and performance review.

Other recommendations in the report included improved training on ethics and guidelines for international office staff and ensuring proper legal advice is sourced before embarking on agency relationships. The full list of recommendations and report can be accessed here.

In an International Education Strategy published last year by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the government said that the higher education sector was not calling for greater regulation of agent usage and noted that Canada and Australia do not regulate the use of agents.

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