Agent power and international student recruitment

Are agents too powerful?

A recent Times Higher Education story on the use of agents by UK universities in international student recruitment noted:

UK universities recruited more than 50,000 international students through commission payments to overseas agents last year, spending close to £60 million on the practice in 2010-11.

Using data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, THE found that 100 universities enrolled 51,027 students in 2011, or the nearest recorded period, via a process involving agents paid on a commission basis.

This is a lot of money but arguably a reasonable proportion of the income derived from international students and therefore could be seen as a sensible investment. However, the role of agents is not always entirely transparent and there is a danger that, given the high stakes here for UK universities and the money to be made by agents, things could become a bit murky.

My colleague Vincenzo Raimo, Director of the University of Nottingham’s International Office, has recently written a piece for the Professionals in International Education blog on the power of agents in the recruitment process. He has some concerns:

“In an ever more competitive international student recruitment market, UK universities are increasingly relying on the use of student recruitment agents to meet targets. Not only are universities failing to appreciate the full costs of international student recruitment but some are also in danger of failing to meet ethical standards in their work overseas.

Valuable visa

Despite the significant increase in international students coming to the UK in recent years I am concerned that as a result of increasing competition and the more difficult environment resulting from the UK government’s changes to visa requirements, recruitment agents have become too powerful and the balance of power between universities and agents has shifted increasingly towards agents.

One would have expected that with the volume increases our institutions have experienced the margin on international students would also have increased. I think the opposite is the case. One of the reasons for this is that in our competitive fervour we’ve let agents become too powerful.

So, agents really are a challenge. There are those who believe we should dispense with them altogether and there are a few universities in the UK and many in the US which refuse to have anything to do with agents. I do think that agents, provided that there are sufficient controls over their behaviour (and fees), can play a valuable role in international student recruitment. But they do require better management and, as Raimo says, we need to shift the balance of power back to the universities.

Advertisements

International students: not an immigration issue

Students really aren’t immigrants

Excellent piece in a recent edition of Times Higher Education by Edward Acton. The essence of his argument is that international students make a massive contribution to the UK economy and most of them leave the UK after graduating. In other words, they really should not be considered as part of the immigration debate. Unfortunately, for entirely political reasons, they are:

Students, in so far as they are regarded as immigrants at all, cause least concern. The vast majority leave after completing their studies. A Home Office study of the cohort entering in 2004 found that after five years, only 3 per cent had settled. Concern only rises if there is doubt that students are visa-compliant and duly exit when their visas expire. But it is acknowledged by all sides and underlined by the Home Office’s own detailed analysis that those with visas sponsored by universities have excellent standards of compliance.

No queuing here

…one clear solution is to lift university-sponsored students out of the net migration calculation. The case for doing so is overwhelming. These “migrants” are distinct. They are, as public policy in other countries recognises, temporary. They are known to have excellent standards of visa compliance. And, in spite of the Home Office, the government as a whole commits considerable resources to encouraging them to come to the UK.

The data needed to separate them is readily available. The Higher Education Statistics Agency collects from its members meticulous detail on each non-EU student joining and completing a higher education course. Every university records student visa start- and end-dates, as well as passport numbers. From this it is possible to derive and publish annual estimates of both the inflow and the outflow of non-EU students who come to the UK for university study.

While influential figures in both governing parties are supportive of the proposal, the Home Office is nervous. A spokeswoman has talked of the need to avoid “fiddling the statistics”. No doubt this reflects ministerial fear that any change to the net migration calculation might arouse public distrust. The fear is misplaced. It underrates the scope for raising the level of public debate. The pressure group MigrationWatch UK, often taken to be the fiercest immigration guard dog, repeatedly emphasises that legitimate international students are not an immigration problem.

As Acton concludes, students have to taken out of the migration stats. We should be focusing on other migrant categories and not students and then, it is to be hoped, it will be possible to undo the damage done internationally to the UK’s reputation.

The PIE news reports on a wave of media attention for UK student visa cap following an IPPR report which suggests that the government has included international students in the net migration count as a way of “gaming” the figures:

IPPR points out that the UK’s main competitors in the overseas student market – the USA, Canada and Australia – do not include temporary or “non-immigrant” admissions in immigration figures, and says only the 15% of overseas students who stay on to work permanently in Britain should be counted within the net migration figures.

More worryingly, it says the government’s plans – which include issuing 250,000 fewer student visas by 2015 – threaten to wipe £4bn to £6bn a year off the UK economy.

The major media response to the report will be welcomed by the education sector, and put pressure on the government as it prepares to announce the latest immigration statistics on May 24.

Higher education is one of the UK’s biggest and most successful export earners and one sector in which we enjoy a real competitive advantage. Now more than ever we need to support it.