India is frequently abuzz with media reports on Indian students being deported from various US Universities. The intriguing commonality is that the bulk of such affected students are from “Hyderabad” and have often been recruited by “certain” Universities desperate to fill their lagging international student targets.
I also believe that the US Universities need to take greater responsibility “for their own actions”.
Just this week, there has been news of 25 Hyderabadi students having been asked to leave after one semester of study at Western Kentucky University. The immediate interpretation by several commentators was to put the blame on the recruiting agents. I am not privy to all information but from what I could read, I find it uncomfortable that an attempt to find a scapegoat is once again being made. The agent from all my summary research has only acted as per the advice of the International Office of the University.
We need to be aware that there are two types of recruitment representatives: The first is the one who is engaged by the University and thus is accountable to the University. This “agent” is the “agent” of the University on the ground. Hence it will be misleading to give an impression that the University has accepted any and every student recommended by the agent. The agent tends to be briefed by the University in advance on the type of student being scoped and then the agent releases advertising “in consultation with the University” and the admission decision tends to be solely of the University only. The second type of “agent” is the free-lancer who is charging the student a fee and dresses the application in a way that an “un-contracted” University admit the student. It will be improper to generalise that all “agents” of either the categories are ethical or unethical. The University is expected to do their due diligence before appointing the agency and if we go by the example of the leading Australian or UK Universities, the mechanism is already in place. The free-lancers are in my opinion more likely to engage in unethical practises as they are not accountable to the Universities in any way.
Now let us come back to the issue of cancellation of enrolment of the Hyderabadi students in the case of WKU. While the Indian media reports at this stage tend to be unsure as to whether the fault lies with the University or with the agent. My take is that the students were recruited by the University through a contracted agent. The students were of poor quality unable to succeed in the program of study but then once again, they were admitted by the admission team of the University. The recruitment process may have been hasty and too desperate to issue “language test waivers” or to accept students with “no programming background” for computing programs but then this was solely the fault of the University. To find the fault in the recruitment agent or in the fully system of recruitment through education agents, is not the answer to the issue at large.
Two months ago, New York Times reported (find the article on this link ):
“Hurry Up!!!” the online posting said. “Spot Admissions” to Western Kentucky University. Scholarships of up to $17,000 were available, it added. “Letter in one day.” The offer, by a college recruiter based in India, was part of a campaign so enticing that more than 300 students swiftly applied to a college that many had probably never heard of.
More than 8,000 miles away, at Western Kentucky, professors were taken by surprise when they learned last fall of the aggressive recruitment effort, sponsored by their international enrollment office. Word began to spread here on campus that a potential flood of graduate students would arrive in the spring 2016 semester.
The problem — or one of them — was that many of the students did not meet the university’s standards, faculty members said, and administrators acknowledged.
Now, if you go through the link you will find that the focus of the article is on named recruitment agents and their reported mis-information. However, my basic point is that the agent may have created an attraction for the institution but the agent has not approved the admission. The University can’t wish away their desperate recruitment and lowered admission requirements by tilting the focus on the agent itself.
Continuing with the WKU example and to dig deep in the role of the University, I have accessed the minutes of the meeting of the University senate on their India Pilot Project (the minute can be found on this link). There is a clear acknowledgement that the University has had an active role in the drama and thus need to take full responsibility.
The minutes of the meeting on Page 5 indicate that:
- Aggressive recruiting by the International Enrollment Office led to a number of letters that suggested direct admission.
- In addition, the website advertised that there would be a 24-hour turnaround for admission.
- There was no application fee required and there was a scholarship promise.
- The question is whose decision is it on admitting graduate students?
- No one was put on the list until they were screened for GPA and a baccalaureate degree.
- The graduate school took the position of letting departments decide which students to admit.
- There is some pressure on departments to admit students who are not yet ready to do the work. These students will take one English course and departments will accept responsibility for their success.
- Regent Burch asked to what extent do we want quantity vs. quality? She added that it is a moral and ethical issue.
The senate minutes (read the full minutes on this link) makes a very interesting reading. The University faculties seem to be blaming their admissions and international division for lowering the admission standards. I didn’t find sufficient reference in the University’s internal discussions to cast blame on the agent. The University too didn’t accept all the students recommended for admission by the recruitment agent. Let me share another quote from the minutes that is quite pertinent.
Richey wants it to be on the record that, as Student Body President, he believes “it is ethically and academically wrong to bring students into this university—to take their money—and let them believe that they can be successful when we have nothing in place to make sure they are successful. That’s why we have admissions standards. This does not pertain to every single student admitted through this project, but it needs to be said even if it applies to only one.”
These quotes are bits and pieces and may be considered incomplete contextually and thus do study the full minutes.
In the article in NY Times, the agent has stated that they had dealt with Western Kentucky for years, but that the recent India project was the first time the university had sent its own employees “on site in India doing evaluations on the spot.” The idea of “spot admission” was to eliminate long waiting times.
To me the WKU case is of an institution that has deliberately lowered the admission criteria and has adopted an even more aggressive stance to recruit student numbers and now that the students recruited are of low quality, a scapegoat will be found.
My blog is not to engage in a blame game. I am still focussed on why the affected students at each instance tends to be from Hyderabad. Is there something dramatically wrong in the recruitment strategy adopted in Hyderabad and also in the very nature of the students. Allow me to list a few peculiarities that I came across:
- Hyderabadi students, like those from Punjab and Gujarat, have a desire to study overseas and settle overseas thereafter. However, bulk of those in Hyderabad have undertaken an engineering bachelor degree from low quality institutions. This fact that they have a four-year undergraduate qualification (albeit with many backlogs) and possessing a desire to cross the border, makes them a unique fit for US institutions of low rank.
- Visa process for several countries (non US) has tightened and there is greater check on documents to weed out non-genuine submissions. US visa process on the other hand has eased in recent years and thus the fraud and fake documents too tends to slip through the system. This makes US as an ideal destination for those with weak documentation. When the US Consulate in Hyderabad tightened the visa grants following the instances of deportation of students, the students started appearing for the visa interviews in Chennai or in Mumbai.
- US recruitment agents in Hyderabad work on a unique business model. The services offered by them are at competitive pricing and thus the focus is largely on volume of students who can be put through the system than on the quality. For a difference as low as $10 between the agent service fees charged by the agency, students have been known to switch their preferred counsellor.
- Bulk of the students are aspiring for low quality institutions with low admission requirements. This suits all parties. US is often perceived socially as the right destination to settle and further education becomes the pathway. More importantly, very few understand that US has some really poor quality Universities too and very few are ending up at an institution that figures in top 500 in the world.
I continue to maintain that while US has some of the BEST Universities in the world that are extremely difficult to get admitted in, US also has the WORST Universities in the world that can be admitted into by just about anyone.
So what is the way out: It’s simple. Look at the Australian system and learn from it. Insist on admitting students who have at-least met the basic English and academic proficiency to complete a program of study. Consider the stature of the degree completed by the student in India and also student’s performance in the degree. The fact that the US Universities have been known to admit students with poor English and negligible programming background in postgraduate engineering and computing programs is a very good example of a recipe for disaster. Are these Universities really keen to impart quality education to able international students or simply encouraging human movement across borders and on planes?
As a closing remark, do be reminded of the issues around Tri Valley University, years ago. And be reminded of the issues around students being sent back from the US Border post despite holding valid visas last year. And now this reporting on the WKU. All (or most) affected students are from Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh. There is a need for Institutions and the Government Agencies to take note of the malaise. There is also a need for Universities to work only with contracted representatives as then they can make the representatives accountable. And there is a need to ensure that generalisations are not drawn.
And the US’s Visa Granting bodies should require that those residing in Hyderabad or Andhra Pradesh/Telangana appear for the visa interviews only in Hyderabad as then it will be easier for the visa officer to understand the background. US Visa Mechanism is faulty and full of loop holes. I am hearing reports of non-genuine students from one high-risk region of India deliberately working the system in a way that they are appearing for visa interviews from low-risk regions of the India.
US needs to fix the system than to find scapegoat in the agent or the fact that education agents have an agenda even when contracted. We need to remember that even if the University doesn’t engage an agent, almost all students are taking advise from agents or counsellors. If such agents or counsellors are not contracted, then there is no way for the University to initiate a code of conduct on them making the counsellor accountable.
Bodies such as AIRC (American International Recruitment Council) are making efforts in regulating education agents. I believe that their system too is short as it has admitted undeserving agencies in the fold but instead of running out AIRC, I rather hope that the shortcomings in their vetting process be fixed to ensure that only suitable (and small number) of agencies make the grade.