Using education agents

Using education agents

There are countries where the ethics of using education agents is being debated. In others, however, international student recruitment is for the larger part (e.g. Australia) or a significant proportion (e.g. United Kingdom) carried out with the aid of agents. Like them or not, these agencies are here to stay and it is important to note that the overwhelming majority are great partners. The trick is to assure that academic standards go before commercial interests and this is a matter of finding the right agents. But how does one do that?

Will there be more international students?

A number of forces collude to increase the global flow of tertiary students: massification of education (about 2 million in 2000 to 5 million today), an uneven increase in global middle classes, an inability in a number of countries to keep pace with demand, and competition to build knowledge economies. It has been estimated by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education that 1/3 of international students going to Anglophone countries use an agent – a third party organisation that receives payment for services to assist students in finding and enrolling at an educational institution. A fee for various services may be paid by either or both the receiving institution and the student. The precise nature of this varies from country to country.

In some countries, the conduct of education agents is regulated by virtue of holding the receiving higher education institutions (HEIs) accountable, as they fall within the jurisdiction of their home countries. There are also some certifying agencies or training schemes created on a national basis or globally. Such certification engenders good practices and ensures that education agencies have good knowledge of appropriate handling.

What are the top sending and receiving countries?

The most recent Agent Barometer (I-Graduate, 2014) has shown that the top 10 countries with agents were India, China, Russia, Brazil, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the UK. 19% of agents represented more than 100 institutions and 35% represented between two and 20 institutions. They recruited for foundation programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and language training. Most of the students who used agents were recruited for HEIs in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, and France.

Are you nurturing your relationships?

In order to maintain a successful relationship with an agent, the Agent Barometer showed that HEIs needed to be mindful of the following aspects:

• A quick response time to inquiries and applications;
• Supply of appropriate agent’s documentation: fees, information about programmes;
• Arrange for agents to visit the HEI and train them;
• Hold information seminars in the source country together with agents;
• Provide scholarship schemes and forms of financial support;
• Give agents clear and comprehensive institutional brochures and maintain an excellent website;
• Conduct marketing campaigns together with the agent (at local schools, etc.) and be present in their brochures;
• Provide agents with student leads, you are not in competition;
• Arrange visits to the agent by international office staff and academics (direct applicant contact);
• Ensure that in the period between application and arrival at your HEI there are activities that maintain contact with students;

Avoid these common pitfalls

Agents were asked what they found most difficult in dealing with the HEIs. Their answers included: managing leads, clients and student information; communicating with the HEIs; getting paid for their work; and exchange rate fluctuations. It would be advisable to have a good system of contact with the agent and to ensure that the financial department treat agents as valuable partners. Too often, they are seen as just another creditor. If at all possible, it is good to be able to manage the communication about financial matters with the agent from the international office. Clearly agreed upon procedures about the timing of payments in relation to student arrivals and refund rules would be well-advised. Where a relationship has matured, it may be advisable to assist the agent with financial flow by agreeing to pay part of the fees due at other times based on the previous year’s activity. The appreciation of your agent for this would be substantial.

How to appoint and develop your relationship with agents

Appointing agents would preferably be a matter of referral by a trusted colleague and also certification where possible. It is a sine qua non that you would visit an agent prior to appointing them. You need to know the quality of their premises first-hand: their staff and the accessibility of their location(s). Next, you would need to agree on a staged engagement in which both parties invest, both in terms of time and money. Remember that this is a partnership.

Considerations as to what position you are in are important factors in how these developments take place. What is your position in the global ranking (if any)? How prestigious is your institution? What are its qualities and does it have some unique advantages? Is your HEI of likely interest by the agency or are you in competition with other HEIs represented by them? Up to a point, the more HEIs they represent the lower the average placement per HEI. How does your HEI spring first to mind when counsellors of an agency are faced with a prospective student? Make sure that when your representatives visit the agency, it is a party for everyone with a good mix of training and festive occasions like dinners to get them to know you better. Believe me, it works!

Robert John Coelen, is Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education at Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

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