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Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Agents and Accountability

Abolish all education agents? That’s what the estimable international education expert Philip Altbach concludes in “Agents and Third-Party Recruiters in International Higher Education”, published in the similarly estimable International Higher Education. According to Altbach, “agents and recruiters have no legitimate role in international higher education” (at p. 13).

But Altbach’s arguments go too far and overlook both the complexity of, and the need for competent, counselling, while entirely taking a pass on the woeful lack of oversight by institutions in enabling agents that tarnish the entire enterprise.

In the past fifteen years, my organization has counselled tens of thousands of students. As any high school counsellor will know, the act of counselling is often exceedingly difficult. Does the student appreciate the difference between computer science and computer engineering (especially in countries where terminology may be interchangeable). Has the student considered oceanography or actuarial science given her interests? Would it perhaps be better to bring in Mom or Dad and explain to them why their own notions of what is best, may in fact, not be best, so that they may also benefit from counselling? There are any number of nuances which benefit from qualified and expert counselling. Indeed, the U.S. government recognizes the importance of international student counselling through its EducationUSA network of advisers.

Altbach’s conclusion that students can rely entirely on the internet for ¡§[O]bjective and accurate information and guidance¡¨(at p. 13) is a good start but hardly a solution. Altbach recognizes that “even a cursory glance at the Web sites of many universities reveals a striking lack of transparency that even borders on false advertising” (at p. 12). Indeed, the question of tuition costs is at the heart of many decisions and yet, so many universities bury or obfuscate the true and full costs of the purchase. Would any of us be okay realizing the true purchase cost over four years, was five or ten or twenty thousand dollars more than we appreciated from the website representation? Unless all those in the field are a disservice, why not champion and nourish the excellent and jettison the rest?

Altbach’s comments are more resonant when it comes to abuses perpetrated by education agents. For example, his critique of agents having the power to admit students is bang on. Similarly for students to pay outrageous fees to agencies while the agencies are paid by the institution is indeed unacceptable. I have no quibble with his anxieties, which are nicely buttressed by a recent Bloomberg News article and an earlier one in The Globe and Mail, both cited below. But do all agencies operate this way?

Do we abolish other enterprises when many or even most operate in an unseemly way? Whether its steroids in baseball or a sham mortgage industry, our instinct should be to clean it up, not throw it out.

And here is the rub. It is not actually that difficult for higher educational institutions to act with propriety and command agencies to do so in turn. We have presented on the subject of working with agents in fora around the world from NAFSA to the Canadian Bureau of International Education, to ICEF, government bodies and others. But in my experience there is a woeful lack of desire amongst these institutions to do so and to pay for doing so. It is one thing to lack rigour, but it’s much worse not to care, and in many cases to see institutions knowingly turn a blind eye to abuse and exploitation. So, regrettably our forum presentations are not generally met with excitement that there is a way forward, but a way forward there is. Here’s how.

First, institutions should have detailed contracts which outline the requirements of the engagement with each individual agency and which delineate offensive conduct. For example, there should be full disclosure of any fees charged by the agency to students and for what purpose at what stage. Why don’t universities do this? Because they don’t want to lose the business? In China, these fees are the business. Is this something new? Hardly, as a superbly prepared report from the Canadian Embassy in Beijing from 2001 indicates, this has been well known for a long time. Ahh, but the agencies will defy the contract some might say, and not without merit.

Hence, secondly, perform diligence not only before engaging any agent but continuously thereafter. Get the agent knowing up front that as an institution yours will be engaged, monitoring and expecting propriety in all conduct when it comes to international student prospects. How to do this? Spot-check. Yes, it costs some money, but doesn’t the
reputation of your institution and your ethical commitments command you to do this (and isn’t there enough financial return to warrant this?). Send individuals to your counterpart agencies purporting to express interest in your institution and get them to file reports. Get these individuals to apply to your institution and see how they are handled? Are extra fees charged? For what? When? Are sub-agents used contrary to law (in the case of China)? Is there meaningful counselling or does the agency have no clue about your programs? Does there appear to be steering rather than wholesome honest advice? This scrutiny is not difficult to exercise. If the report does not measure up to the contract, dismiss the agent (using the provision in the contract for doing so in such circumstances). Finally, do diligence at home. If you have a cohort of students who arrived thanks to overseas agents, question and debrief them, and collect information that can be used for follow-up with agencies either directly or through outside investigation (but don’t forget: some students lie to get ahead too so they may say, for example, that a scholarship or transfer credit was promised when it was not).

And for those on the institution side worried about education agents and misrepresentations, a note of extra care from someone who winces when universities defeat reasonable expectations of any kind: Try to keep your own house in order and your own representations commensurate. Altbach’s reference to university websites bordering on “false advertising” barely scrapes at the surface. At the heart of the enterprise is surely delivering the quality of education represented and as noted in The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University: “Again and again, universities are guilty of an advertising practice they would condemn in the commercial world”.

1 China Rush to U.S. Colleges Reveals Predatory Fees for Recruits

2 Chinese students pay dearly for Canadian ‘education’

3 Despite the fact that recruitment of overseas students is a regulated industry in China, a significant number of agents operate without approval. The sub-contracting of the recruitment licence by an approved agent to an unapproved agent (for a fee of course) is common practice, although strictly illegal.

Given the tremendous sums of money involved, a large industry of student visa consultants has developed in China. As the fee charged to the student is usually dependent upon successful issuance of the visa, there is an considerable incentive to increase the chances of success by submitting fraudulent documents. Sources report that the incidence of fraud is as high as 50% in certain regions in China. For an additional fee, some consultants provide an entire package of fraudulent documents (bank deposit certificates, school graduation diplomas, parents’ employment documentation) as well as lend to an applicant funds on a short term basis (less than one week) to help them meet student authorization financial criteria. The funds are returned to the lender shortly thereafter.

Source: “How to Ensure Success Education Marketing Strategies for China 2001″
Post Advisory Committee on Education (PACE) Canadian Embassy Beijing

4 “Agents and Third-Party Recruiters in International Higher Education”, International Higher Education, Number 62: Winter 2011, page 11

5. Recruitment materials display proudly the world-famous professors, the splendid facilities and the ground-breaking research that goes on within them, but thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research. Some of their instructors are likely to be badly trained or even untrained teaching assistants who are groping their way toward a teaching technique; some others may be tenured drones who deliver set lectures from yellowed notes, making no effort to engage the bored minds of the students in front of them. … And all too often they graduate without knowing how to think logically, write clearly, or speak coherently. The university has given them too little that will be of real value beyond a credential that will help them get their first jobs. (at pages 6,7)

Source: “Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities, 1998.”


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About Dani

Dani has consulted universities, colleges, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of international education since 1997. He is co-founder of Higher-Edge, the parent of Overseas, Overwhelmed, and a director of the Canadian University Application Centre. He is a former international and human rights lawyer and holds a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Toronto Law School.

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