Oversight and transparency key for agent relationships

“Institutions really need to invest time in not just vetting and onboarding their agent contractors but in training them, visiting them where viable and having ongoing and responsive communications,” said Eddie West, report author and assistant dean, international strategy and programs at the San Diego State University Global Campus, who presented his research along with his co-authors Iona Huang and Vincenzo Raimo at a recent CGHE webinar.

While according to West a one-size fits all approach is not advisable, “working with agents and engaging with them in the contracting process so that there’s mutual understanding” can improve outcomes.

“This isn’t across the board, but by and large many institutions who worked with fewer agents tended to be more satisfied with the outcomes,” West added.

Iona Huang, senior lecturer in management at Harper Adams University, further added that there were regional differences in the number of agents used by institutions.

“In Australia the median number was 201, then the UK’s median was 80 and the US was 25,” she said.

While in the UK and US there is no national governance framework for international student recruitment, Pii-Tuulia Nikula, a senior lecturer at Eastern Institute of Technology researching education agent regulation in Australia and New Zealand, noted that the Australia in particular had been “quite good in increasing transparency”.

“All providers list all the agents they work with on their websites as well as providing information directly to the government on the agents they work with,” she said, although she acknowledged there remained issues around vague wording and a tendency towards taking action when issues arise over good monitoring.

Meanwhile Vincenzo Raimo, global higher education specialist and chief relationship officer for Unilodgers, said that some universities in the UK do publish lists of the agents they work with but he had found many listed agents that no longer exist, or with no or dead contact details.

“It’s incredibly important that there is greater transparency”

“It’s incredibly important that there is greater transparency in the way universities work with agents so that students who use agents have an understanding of the kind of dynamics at play,” he said.

“If we can make clear what the role of agents are, and importantly that agents are paid a fee, then the student might understand why the agent is pushing that university over another university.”

This was echoed in a 2018 report from Hong Kong Consumer Council which found that the relationship between agents and universities in Hong Kong was “not often advertised” and “usually difficult for the student or parents to ascertain”.

Findings from the Council’s trade survey reveal that service providers in Hong Kong marketed themselves as consultants, when in fact many acted in the capacity of an agent.

“On some occasions, it was apparent that the commercial motivation arising out of the basis of compensation induced some education consultants to become biased in favour of their partner institutions and overlook or diminish a student/parent’s preference,” they noted at the time.

“The commercial motivation arising out of the basis of compensation induced some education consultants to become biased”

Across 39 mystery shopper visits, during nine (23.1%) it was stated that the suggested courses could only be applied through the consultant, while in 29 (74.7%), students could submit their applications directly to the targeted institution but it was suggested that students would have certain benefits if they were to apply through the consultant.

Among the supposed benefits two thirds gave no specifics, while one said they could ensure a guaranteed offer and two offered discounts on tuition fees.

The Hong Kong Consumer Council further told The PIE News that while in 2018 and 2019 it had received one and two complaints on the practices of overseas study consultants respectively, the number rose to six from Jan-Oct 2020.

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