As US debates “banning education agents”, experts present the “pros and cons”.

In USA, National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, proposed forbidding members from using commission-based agents abroad. (NACAC policy and federal law prohibit commission-based recruitment in the United States domestically at present.) The association’s Board of Directors is expected to vote on the proposed policy statement in July.

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION has presented the pros and cons of this move in the form of a debate and Global Reach was invited to provide its arguments. Mr Victor Rao, Global Reach GM, has articulated the viewpoints of the agents. This blog will carrytwo of the arguments from the article and the full article is available on this link.

As American colleges look to increase international enrollments, in part to bolster their bottom lines, many are turning to independent contractors, known as agents, to represent them overseas. This practice has proved controversial, however. Critics argue that recruiters are often more interested in making money than serving students or institutions. They also say that the way many of them are paid, on a per-student commission basis, encourages unethical behavior. Proponents say agents are cost-effective and can best assist foreign students because they speak the same language and understand the local culture. While there have been examples of abuses, due diligence by institutions and a broader reliance on standards and certification procedures can curb bad behavior, the proponents say.

This debate took on a new urgency last month when the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, proposed forbidding members from using commission-based agents abroad. (NACAC policy and federal law prohibit commission-based recruitment in the United States.) The association’s Board of Directors is expected to vote on the proposed policy statement in July.

To help shed light on the controversy, The Chronicle asked six education experts for their views. Their essays appear below.

Viewpoint AIRC:

Agents play a much needed role in higher education, and bad practices can be weeded out, argues John Deupree of the American International Recruitment Council.

Agent Is Not a 4-Letter Word

By John Deupree

In the debate over the use of international-recruitment agents, what hasn’t been widely explored is the complexity of the forces that are driving universities to hire them and students to seek them out. While it is simple to paint these forces as being based on either greed or ignorance, in fact they are based largely on a demand from colleges for improving the recruitment experience and the very real need of a trusted, in-depth support network for international students that recognizes their unique challenges.

Existing international-recruitment models often have three limitations: They require an upfront investment in staff time and travel with little or no guarantee of return; their lead time for success is significant; and the results are often unpredictable. While simply raising the numbers of international students on a campus was once a sufficient goal, many institutions now developing a strategic internationalization plan find that a more traditional approach no longer meets the needs of the institution as a whole. For example, while large blocks of engineering programs may be filled with international students, humanities and social-science programs frequently have few or none. Is this because there are no Chinese students interested in history or anthropology—or is it because traditional international-recruitment efforts that wrestle with both time and monetary limitations can only afford to focus on the easy targets?

The simple truth is that most international-recruitment dollars do not stretch far enough to find students who might meet a wide array of institutional goals, such as geographic, cultural, or religious diversity, or even ability to pay tuition.

It should therefore be no surprise that many institutions seeking to adopt new recruitment strategies that serve all of their departmental needs, and that can be tracked to gauge the success of their investment, are trying a new tack. They are learning that relying on an agency partner that has cultural and linguistic ties to a specific country to send them the students they need, based on the criteria set through an institutional planning process, can add considerable breadth to their efforts. Institutions are learning that paying a fee derived from the tuition a student pays upon enrollment shifts the uncertainty of investing in an upfront cost, with a vague expectation of returns down the road, to one that is based on strategic goals and paid upon success in identifying the right student.

Now consider the point of view of students around the world. It is far too easy to overlook the fact that students in most countries do not grow up with the same expectation or even understanding of educational choice that is afforded most middle-class American students. While the typical American collegebound student expects to begin receiving hundreds of brochures at a very young age, that is not the case for students in most other countries where access to higher education is much more limited. The very idea of opening a college guide or debating the merits of an urban university versus a rural college is simply not the reality for most international students.

On top of navigating the very concept of educational choice, they also face the need to decipher complex admissions and testing policies and applications in a language that is not their own. Add the fact that paying for an American higher education is perhaps the biggest investment most families may ever make, and the very understandable anxiety of parents about to send their son or daughter not to a bucolic campus within driving distance of home, but to an unknown location halfway around the world, is it any wonder that both the students and parents choose to turn for help to someone local? Is it any wonder that they would prefer to get in-depth support from someone they know, or who speaks their language, rather than counting entirely on the charming American institutional representative they met at a college fair and who may not reappear in their city for two or three more years, or an embassy adviser whose time and scope are limited?

Given these two realities—on the one hand, a perceived need for better strategic planning in international recruitment by institutions, and on the other, the strong need for a helping hand for the students and parents seeking an American (or British or Australian) education—there is clearly a demand for professional intermediary organizations that can serve both student and institution. The great irony is that our very inattention to an obvious demand has allowed it to create a sort of gray market. There is no doubt that a poor reputation for agency-student interaction is in many cases richly deserved. Anyone who has ever been in an Asian marketplace knows that anything can be negotiated for a price and that the buyer always needs to beware. It should therefore be no surprise that the marketplace for students operates with the same lack of protection for both students and institutions seeking them.

Is the solution, however, to ban the marketplace (and is it even possible to do this?) or to conveniently ignore the ugliness factor? Alternatively, in the spirit of fair-trade coffee, why not attempt to bring some order to it?

The way forward from this debate is therefore to set standards, hold agencies accountable to them, and promote a dialogue on professionalism through which agencies can hear that excessive fees, document fraud, and unqualified students will not be tolerated, and institutions commit to holding their agency partners accountable for bringing them students with qualifications they expect. If successful, both institutions and students will benefit.

John Deupree is executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, an association of higher-education institutions and international-recruiting agencies, which sets standards and conducts a certification process.

Viewpoint of Global Reach articulated by Mr Victor Rao:

An agent in India says the debate in the United States is 15 years out of date—and misses the point.

Learn From the British Experience 

By Victor Rao

In 1996, when I was working at the British Council, Britain’s international cultural-relations agency other employees and I asked ourselves questions about agents that will sound familiar today. “Do we need to work with agents?” “Aren’t British universities by themselves good enough to attract students?” “What do agents offer students that adds value to the recruitment process?” And so on.

The British Council had a “no agents” policy. In India, where I worked for the council in its Kolkata office, we represented a number of higher-education institutions, and with a network of libraries around India that attracted thousands of students, we were best placed to meet the recruitment needs of British universities. Or so we thought.

While contemplating the question about agents, our office in Kolkata looked at the recruitment industry. It saw that Global Reach, a small company representing a few Australian universities, was growing by leaps and bounds. In spite of representing Australian institutions that were quite new to the market, Global Reach was breathing down the necks of the British universities, and the market share for Australian education was growing rapidly. The Australians had in place a good policy for regulating agents, while we were still debating whether to allow agents access to British institutions. The rest is history. The British Council soon adopted a pro-agent policy and began training agents and certifying those who successfully completed the training.

Having experienced that turnaround 15 years ago, I see the present debate in the United States over the use of agents as a nonissue and one that seems very dated. I now work for Global Reach, where I’ve seen firsthand what agents can offer a university.

There is no doubt that agents with their network of offices have a much wider reach than do many universities and, in cultures where a personal touch is needed, they provide a very efficient, ethical, and useful role. Many of the top agents have been in business for over 20 years and maintain a high degree of professionalism and integrity in serving students. So for the present debate to tarnish the whole lot of agents with a black brush is not only sad, but foolish.

Over the years, contracts between agents and universities have evolved so that the agreements better protect the institutions from any agent who might use unfair or unethical practices.

So the debate should not be about good agents or bad agents. It should be about learning from the lessons of countries like Australia, Britain, and New Zealand that have successfully managed agent relationships to their mutual benefit. As with any industry, some rogue elements will join in the business if the going is good. Being constantly vigilant and checking periodically to ensure that both the parties are following the spirit of an agreement will go a long way in building a healthy and prosperous relationship.

American institutions should stop raising a bogeyman over what is a resolved issue around the world. Good agents are here to stay and deliver a good service. Look around at what the other countries have done to manage agents and adopt these sound practices.

Victor Rao is general manager of Global Reach, a student-recruitment company. He worked at the British Council from 1991 to 2008.

For the other viewpoints expressed in this article, the links are below:

Colleges would be doing a “disservice” to themselves and their students if they did not take a stand against commission-based agents, says Jim L. Miller of NACAC.

Agents offer a valuable benefit to both students and colleges, says an admissions officer at the University of Cincinnati.

Universities can find better—and more ethical—ways to recruit abroad, argues an admissions officer at the University of Denver.

A counselor at a private high school in Shanghai says agents have proliferated in China, blurring the lines between educational assistance and making money.

One Comment

  1. Every industry has a good practitioner and a bad practitioner. In today’s world the bad news travels faster and hence any negative act of a non regulated / unethical agent puts the complete student recruitment industry in the spotlight and the good / regulated / ethical agents are victimized. There is a need for counseling students and consulting Education providers. This cannot be ignored. Hence, reforms for regulating this industry is the only way forward. This requires sincere and positive efforts from the policy makers.

    Like

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