Education agents operate extensively in all the key international student recruitment markets. They vary from very large global companies to small one or two person operations. They play a major role in recruiting students to UK universities, colleges and independent schools and are primary intermediaries for institutions and influencers of students’ decisions.
Students’ use of agents
The British Council conducted research on 90 000 prospective international students over the last five years. They found that 40% of prospective students considering studying in the UK have used or planned to use the services of an education agent. This is an increase from 10% in 2007. In some countries the use of agents is very high: in China 45% of students use agents, in India 43% and in Nigeria 30%. Students and parents use agents to arrange study abroad either because they lack knowledge and understanding of overseas education systems or (even where they have obtained their own placement) because they lack the time or confidence to complete the necessary formalities, especially visa application procedures, without help, and are happy to pay for assistance from an agent. Overall this represents 30% of all international non-European Union students enrolled on UK higher education courses. Moreover, over 92% of UK institutions work with agents. The rise in the number of agents being used is linked to the increase in students seeking an international education.
The UK manages risks and maximises benefits at two levels. At the institution level, universities govern their relationships with individual agents through legal contracts which set out the terms of agreement. In practice, universities see agents as their valued representatives in-country; many provide visits to the institution, training and support to ensure that agents understand the institution’s requirements. For education institutions, it is important that their relationship with agents and others to whom they pay commission is undertaken in a professional manner and is consistent with both the UKCISA Code of Ethics and the QAA’s guidance on international students studying in the UK.
At the UK level, the British Council’s Agent Strategy, originally developed with the universities at the beginning of the millennium, provides an approach designed to obtain maximum benefit from agents working on behalf of UK education. Its key components are:
1. Building agent capacity and professionalism
The aim of the strategy is to increase the number, effectiveness and quality of agents working on behalf of UK providers in all relevant sectors. This is achieved primarily through British Council’s Agent Training and Continuing Professional Development Programmes. These are backed up by information dissemination and other activities aimed at developing the role of agents as marketing partners. The British Council maintains agent databases and makes lists of trained agents available to institutions and students.
2. Joint working with the other English speaking destination countries
In 2011, the British Council, with Australia Education International, convened a roundtable to develop and agree international standards for agents. Four countries – the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland – agreed they were facing similar challenges in managing reputational risks of agent use. The resulting Statement of Principles for the Ethical Recruitment of International Students by Education Agents and Consultants (the London Statement’) was jointly agreed and signed in London. The Statement addresses the key risk factors in working with agents and sets out an agenda to manage these through a collaborative global approach by the signatory countries.
The move aims to ensure that students receive a better service when they use agents to help them apply for school, college or university places overseas. The Statement stresses the need for professionalism and ethical responsibility on the part of the commission-based agents who help many schools, colleges and universities to recruit international students. The Statement sets out seven principles that agents will be urged to adhere to, in an effort to ensure they practice responsible business ethics, providing current, accurate and honest information to prospective students so they can make informed choices.
It says that agents’ business dealings should be made transparent through written agreements, and they should work with destination countries and higher education providers to help raise ethical standards and best practice. Underpinning these principles is an ethical framework that also lays great stress on professionalism, integrity, objectivity, transparency and confidentiality. The approach focuses on supporting and developing reputable and professional agents, and setting out clearly what the expectations are, to help ensure that international students receive a good service and sound advice when they consult an agent.
It is important that the reputation and integrity of international education continues to be held in high regard. We must ensure that international students receive advice which will enable them to have high quality educational experiences.
Kevin Van-Cauter and Helen Obaje, British Council
Sign up for the upcoming EAIE Academy to learn more about the topic.