By Matthew Knott, News Editor of StudyTravel Magazine

Agents are very much under the spotlight in Australia at the moment, as shown in our main news story today

At a time when Australia has been celebrating its return to growth, including record levels of commencements for the higher education and Elicos sectors in 2014, and the government has announced a long-term strategy to sustain and expand the sector, it might have been expected that the role of agents in boosting this trade would be praised.

But a report by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales (NSW) has urged universities to reduce the number of agent partners they work with, and a TV documentary on Australian channel ABC similarly focussed on fraudulent activities in the sector.

ICAC is concerned about the tension between international recruitment imperatives and academic standards. It raises some legitimate concerns about fraudulent documentation, lowering English scores, student capabilities, plagiarism and soft marking, lack of risk strategies and more, all of which threaten to undermine standards and Australia’s reputation.

Despite some of the inflammatory language – “Controlling agencies: the dangers of intermediaries” (ICAC); “regular recruitment from corrupt agencies” (ABC) – most of the measures highlighted were actually internal practices of the universities.

While some of the agent behaviour outlined in the document, and depicted in the TV programme cannot be condoned, there are some serious points to be raised. Firstly, why were no agents interviewed by ICAC in order to understand the sector?

In terms of quality control of agents, the obvious outlet of Felca and its network of accredited agencies across several national associations are not mentioned at all.

It also ignores some of the basic enduring principles of why a student uses an agent in the first place. The ICAC report repeatedly refers to the highly competitive world of international student recruitment and the ever-expanding plethora of options that students have, which makes the service the agent provides to the student ever more vital, regardless of whether the universities or authorities think they should be using one or not.

And the Australian government’s own survey of 55,609 international students in Australia found that 90 per cent of those that used an agent rated the service as either good or very good.

ICAC advocates more partner institution relationships as a way to recruit international students, but this is surely beset with a similar set of problems and provides less consumer choice for the student.

There was also a touch of naivety about how the agency model operates. ICAC appeared to be shocked that that agents would represent multiple institutions. Would they expect a high street travel agent to only represent one holiday resort? The model of exclusivity in agency relationships is perhaps one that can be explored, but it isn’t the industry norm.

ICAC certainly doesn’t advocate wholesale removal of agencies, and admits such a scenario would be impossible and undesirable, but suggestions to strengthen partnerships with key agents and reduce those with others goes against most universities’ aims of broadening – not narrowing – the international intake.

There are some suggestions for alternative commission payment models, including staggered payments based on student performance during a full degree, and there might be something to work with here. But at the end of the day, how can an agent be sure that a client is a good, hard-working student committed to passing their degree any more than domestic admission departments can know this about an Australian student? A myriad of factors can stop a student progressing and graduating and potentially leaving the agent out of pocket. Perhaps preferable commission rates based on past student performance might be the preferable of ICAC’s suggestions in this sphere.


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