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:

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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).

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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.

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More visa uncertainty

Position on visas still not clear

The Guardian has a story on the latest government position on changes to the visa regime.

Whilst on the face of it there does seem to be some movement in response to the concerns expressed by universities, there are still significant uncertainties:

But young scientists applying for visas may face serious difficulties because their incomes are often so low. Previously an MBA or a £150,000 salary guaranteed enough points to secure a visa, but a PhD scientist on a typical academic salary fell short. Scientists are concerned that the government will fail to address this disparity under the new scheme. A further problem is that scientists are awarded three-year visas for posts that can last much longer, forcing institutes to use two consecutive visas for each researcher.

“The average postdoc here lasts four or five years, so each consumes two slots and that is crazy. There are people here who are very nervous about whether they will be allowed to stay and finish their work,” Rigby said. “It is bound to be a disincentive for bright young things to come to this country.”
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Catherine Marston, policy adviser at the Universities and Colleges Union, echoed Rigby’s concerns. “It causes difficulties for people who are already here in the UK. If their visa runs out, they will use up one of your allocation if you decide to support them. If you don’t decide to support them they will have to leave the country.”

Professor Rigby said the government must revise its “one size fits all” approach to immigration. He said the rules should be changed to accommodate scientists by giving PhDs more points and awarding visas for the full duration of an academic post.

The uncertainty doesn’t help. It sends out the signal that UK HE is not open for business. The proposed changes to student visas are likely to exacerbate this. Hard times indeed.

NB, Catherine Marston is the most excellent policy advisor at Universities UK, not UCU as stated in the report.

Restricting international staff recruitment by universities

The problems with the Tier 2 cap

The THE recently carried a story about the problems being caused by the cap on immigration from non-EU countries which is particularly affecting universities:

The UK Border Agency has given each university a quota on recruitment from non-European Union countries under Tier 2 of the points-based immigration system, which covers “skilled workers”. The quotas cover new visas – and renewals for existing staff – between 19 July 2010 and 31 March 2011, when the permanent cap will be imposed.

The government’s interim immigration cap has left one of the UK’s major research universities able to recruit or keep only 78 “skilled” overseas academics this year – and the permanent cap could bring further reductions.

The institution in the THE report is UCL but Nottingham is in almost exactly the same position. We are a global university operating in a global market. We have to recruit the most talented academics and researchers, wherever they come from, in order to sustain our international competitiveness. It is only by sustaining and advancing our excellence in research, teaching and knowledge transfer that we can deliver what the country demands from a leading university. Measures which hamper our ability to recruit the best staff inevitably risk jeopardising the success of this enterprise and the efforts of other leading UK universities. At a time when the country desperately needs its universities, which are among the UK’s best export businesses, to perform to capacity, it seems perverse to put such constraints on us. The UK’s immigration policy needs to be robust and transparent but it will be counterproductive if it reduces the competitiveness of such an important export industry as higher education.

Universities UK has been working hard to persuade government to think again and the University of Nottingham has also been talking to our local MPs, resulting in my first (and, in all likelihood, last) appearance in Hansard.