Outsourcing student recruitment

Australian colleges trust to agents

Very surprised by this piece in @insidehighered which notes that agents have expanded their reach into domestic higher education recruitment in Australia:

When the Australian Skills Quality Authority examined 400 college websites during last year’s marketing audit, as many as 70 turned out to belong to brokerage firms rather than training providers.“It’s certainly quite a phenomenon now,” said Chris Robinson, the agency’s chief commissioner.


A consultant, Claire Field, said marketing agents were particularly active in Queensland, mostly selling vocational diplomas. “With the higher education reforms, there’s no doubt we’ll see more activity,” she said.This is already happening, with high-flying Acquire Learning marketing degrees in ­accounting, arts, business, community services and information technology from Federation University and more than a dozen private colleges. Melbourne-based ProLearn recruits students for Victoria University’s graduate certificate in management.

While this does appear to be focused mainly on colleges and vocational qualifications there is some evidence of universities using such services too. Many UK institutions use agents for international recruitment but how long can it be before universities and colleges start using this kind of service for domestic student recruitment too?

International agents: regulation required?

Do we need to regulate universities use of international recruitment agents?

A new publication from the Leadership Foundation, called Using International Recruitment Agents: Risks and Regulation? argues that we do need more regulation in this area. It’s an interesting report on an important area of activity:


The expansion of the international student market has coincided with a ‘dramatic proliferation’ of universities using agents to recruit international students. This practice is controversial due to the apparent conflict of interest between prospecting for students for a particular university, and advising students on that university’s suitability. Our paper analyses the challenges that arise from using agents. We find that there are examples of unethical practice, such as misselling and financial fraud. Yet we also explore the services that agents provide to students and universities, and find that they cannot easily be replicated by organisations that do not face the same inherent conflict of interest. The paper goes on to discuss the current picture in terms of regulation, both in the UK and further afield, and a range of other regulatory options. We conclude by recommending that the UK moves towards a sector-wide system of self-regulation to improve the quality of advice to potential students and reduce the risk of unethical practice.

This proposal though is to set up an organisation to regulate universities use of agents, linked to Highly Trusted Status (required for international student recruitment), and drawing on the sector’s experience of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (the OIA, the independent ombudsman which deals with unresolved complaints from students about their universities).


According to the paper this new organisation would establish “ethical principles which institutions would have to comply with in order to recruit international students”, would licence agents and would also adjudicate on complaints made by students.

Universities need to and should behave ethically in recruiting international students. As the paper notes there aren’t any better alternatives to using agents and simply arguing for discontinuing use of them is not going to work. Institutions though should be transparent about agent arrangements and the fees they are paid (as the University of Nottingham has done) and respond properly to complaints.

However, we really do not need a new regulatory body to do this. At a time of ever more regulation plus the impositons of the UKBA and the challenging and costly bureaucracy around international student visas, the last thing universities need is self-imposed costly and restrictive regulation.

So, interesting report but no thanks.

Surprising University Recruitment Tools

An unusual attractor for the University of Nottingham.

In these highly competitive times with fierce battles being fought between institutions to attract students it is sometimes surprising which factors are influential with prospective students. Entirely anecdotally and picked up from student comments online and on open days it does seem that the very existence of the Quidditch and Harry Potter Society at the University of Nottingham has a profound influence on some students’ choices. So, it’s more than just reputation, high league table rankings, award winning campuses, wonderful facilities, international study opportunities, outstanding staff that makes the difference. Yes, to really seal the deal you have to have a society based on a fictional game involving broomsticks.

But, as the details of the society indicate there is a lot more to this than just Quidditch:

Welcome to the Quidditch and Harry Potter Society (also known as Quidditch Soc)!

Our mission is simple: to organise events and activities based around our love for the Harry Potter novels (and films). We will have lots of big events coming up. We hope to see you there!

Quidditch every single week! Turn up whenever you can (even if it’s raining — we’ll go to Mooch if everyone’s too disgruntled about the weather) and we’ll play some practice house games for an hour or two. Very beginner-friendly with lots of rules explanation and non-serious mucking around.

See also the Facebook page.

I think this is just terrific and long may the society continue. Intrigued to know though if anyone else has noticed this positive impact or any other surprising university recruitment tools.

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.

Agonising over International Student Recruitment

Squeamish or purist? US universities debating use of recruitment agents

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on what sounds like a lively debate on the use of agents for international student recruitment.

The practice of paying overseas agents for the students they recruit has become more contentious as it has grown more common among American colleges. Proponents say it can help attract students in an increasingly competitive global student market, and they note that other countries, like Australia and Britain, rely on foreign representatives to bring in students.

But a primary membership group for admissions officials, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, has released a proposed policy statement that would expressly forbid colleges from using commission-based agents to recruit domestically or internationally. (Institutions cannot pay commissions for domestic students if they receive federal financial-aid funds.)

… Mr. Hawkins questioned paying commissions to student recruiters, saying the practice, when used by for-profit institutions in the United States, had proved “disastrous” in the past. “It creates an incentive to marginalize students’ interests,” he said.

So, are they being unduly squeamish? Or is it more about adopting a principled approach to international student recruitment? Many UK universities have routinely used agents for international recruitment for many years but the key here is about how you do it and making sure you use the right ones. As Mitch Leventhal of SUNY points out in an essay about engaging properly with agents, it’s essential to maintain high standards.

While US universities agonise about this it is of course good news for competitor nations in international student recruitment. And in the UK we need every assistance we can get to counteract the negative effect of the messaging and the practice of Tier 4 immigration controls.

“Doubling foreign enrolments is ‘unbelievable’ aim”

So, are international student numbers set to double?

According to Times Higher Education:

English universities are relying on “unbelievable” plans to increase international student numbers by up to 100 per cent in four years as government policy leads to fears of volatility in home student numbers.

Durham University plans for a 97 per cent increase in non-European Union undergraduates between now and 2014-15, while the University of Exeter is planning for a 73 per cent rise in certain areas in the same period.

Senior figures in the sector warn that universities are relying too heavily on unrealistic targets for overseas income in their financial planning.

For 2010-11, English higher education institutions aimed to increase their non-EU student fee income from £2.1 billion (9.6 per cent of total income) to £2.3 billion, according to figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

But in a statement to Times Higher Education, the funding body highlights increased competition for international students between UK universities, and fiercer recruitment battles with other nations.

A Hefce spokesman said this “implies optimism in some of the current growth forecasts”.

Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities, said Hefce had used stronger words in informal discussions about future projections.

“Every (institution’s) strategic plan includes losses of money on home students and a massive increase in international students. (Hefce) says it is unbelievable. It is unlikely the numbers would increase by the amount people are predicting.”

Are HEIs’ targets ‘unbelievable’? There will undoubtedly be optimism here. There may even be a little desperation in some quarters. But no university can ‘rely’ on targets. It’s the delivery that counts. And sustained delivery of recruitment targets depends in large part on delivery of a high quality student experience. It’s about an awful lot more than just clever marketing and a large dose of optimism.

Of course there will be institutions which fail to deliver fully on over-optimistic targets but many more will be able to grow in a sensible and managed way. This is despite the likely negative impact of Tier 4 visa changes. Unfortunately though this line of argument does rather take us into Daily Mail ‘foreign students steal our degree places’ territory.

Miserable weather makes universities more attractive

Miserable weather makes universities more attractive to prospective students

According to a recent article in the Telegraph:

Schoolchildren who visit a university on a cloudy day are more likely to decide to go there because they prefer to study somewhere that is not sunny. Far from the stereotype of pupils picking a place where they think they will have most fun, they subconsciously prefer somewhere amenable to doing homework, it was found. Professor Uri Simonsohn, of the University of Pennsylvania, made the discovery after analysing data on campus visits by 1,284 prospective students to a university.

He and his team found that students were nine per cent more likely to enrol to the university if the weather was grey and there was no sun. In order to rule out the possibility that students visiting on cloudier months – December rather than September – were keener, he controlled for this and found that the effect of the weather actually gets a bit stronger.

This doesn’t feel quite right. However, the proposition is that students prefer working on cloudier days and having fun outside when it’s sunny. Fair enough. The argument then runs that these associations may mean that weather during a campus visit affects the perception of the institution so that universities visited on cloudy days may seem more compatible with academic activities than those visited on sunny ones.

This is interesting stuff. The general assumption in student recruitment activity is that sunnier days are better because campuses look much more pleasant and attractive. Moreover, rain tends to make concrete, prevalent at many UK universities, look pretty grim and generally off-putting. But then it’s not like you can choose the weather for your open day in any case.

Record Numbers of International Students in U.S.

A very good year

The US has a had a good year in terms of international student recruitment:

The number of foreign students attending American colleges hit an all-time high in 2008, capping three consecutive years of vigorous growth, according to new data from the Institute of International Education. Some 671,616 international students attended U.S. institutions in 2008-9, an increase of almost 8 percent from a year earlier. First-time-student enrollments grew even more robustly, by nearly 16 percent.

via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

UK remains second to the US in international student recruitment but the competition is clearly getting more and more fierce.

Categorising international students

The Guardian has a report on an exciting new piece of market research.

In what is undoubtedly a totally altruistic piece of work for the benefit of UKHE and not at all any kind of attempt to get free publicity and drum up loads of new business, a particular firm has:

gone for an anthropological take on a poll it has conducted of 25,000 international students, 80% of whom are at British universities. It asked the students what it was that made them choose their university and country of study. Then it organised them into tribes according to their answers.

It is so mindbogglingly simple and clever, it is difficult to believe it has not been done before in order to enhance international intakes. So, those “tribes” then – each of these students apparently fits into one of the following categories:

  • “seeker” (does what parents dictate)
  • “gekko” (greed is good)
  • “bono” (egotist saving the world through the medium of music)
  • “kid” (lacks focus, life entirely governed by league tables)
  • “surfer” (fun loving slacker)

International recruitment issues solved? Does this really help us understand our students or our markets better?