For universities both aspiring and elite, having international students on the books is an excellent way to build up their global reputation, draw in a wider pool of talent and, of course, bring in extra revenue. As you might expect, there is a lot of competition for recruiting international students, especially among universities with a smaller international profile. This has resulted in the widespread use of student recruitment agents, who bring interested students to universities and guide them through the application process in return for commission. Alongside this ‘soft’ help, the agent’s commission is sometimes taken out of a student’s tuition fees, providing a discount for students and more of a ‘hard’ incentive for them to use an agent.
Of course, where there’s money to be made and prestige to be gained, there’s always the risk of impropriety by one or more parties…
Corruption in Student Recruitment
Back in April, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for New South Wales (NSW) released a report entitled ‘Learning the hard way: managing corruption risks associated with international students at universities in NSW’.
According to the OECD, Australia is the fourth most popular international study destination worldwide, hosting 6% of the world’s internationally mobile students. New South Wales is home to 11 of Australia’s universities, and one fifth of students in NSW universities are international students. The crux of ICAC’s report is that a conflict has emerged between the desires of institutions to bring in more international revenue while still complying with academic standards. An ‘academic standards gap’ is said to have emerged in some areas, brought on by universities admitting students who don’t comply with academic requirements or English proficiency. Remarkably, up to 60% of NSW’s international students are recruited via agents, and every university in NSW was found to have dealt with cases of fraud stemming from international students brought in by agents.
Fortunately, the situation is better than it sounds. The ICAC report does rely on anecdotal evidence and fairly sweeping points in order to make its claims, and it describes itself as identifying areas of potential risk rather than evidence of a system coming undone. Also, it notes that the fact that all schools had encountered fraud meant that all had effective systems in place to tackle it.
Although schools seem to have a grasp over the issue, the development of an academic standards gap in the first place is troubling regardless of how well it is being handled. It is a drag on both an institution’s reputation and the student experience, for the unqualified students creating the standards gap as well as their peers. For degrees involving group work such as medicine, engineering or business, having study partners who don’t necessarily meet the minimum standards can detract from the classroom experience. The individuals who lose the most when student recruitment agents provide un(der)qualified students are actually the students themselves. While the pursuit of a prestigious education is completely understandable, being faced with work so challenging that one has to resort to plagiarism or the services of an ‘essay mill’ is not enjoyable and will not provide the student with an enriching experience.
How to Prevent Corruption
Universities in New South Wales have taken a number of approaches to tackling corruption in international student recruitment. These include:
- Reducing the institution’s reliance on agents, sometimes by forming partnerships with overseas institutions to provide an alternative source.
- Changing commission structures for agents to put a focus on quality over quantity.
- Monitor agents more closely.
- Form closer relationships with a fewer number of trustworthy agents.
- Moving admissions functions away from international student offices.
- Diversifying revenues away from international student fees.
Australia is not the only country where universities work closely with student recruitment agents. In the United Kingdom, the second most popular destination for international students by OECD’s data, between 60-120 million pounds is paid in commission to student recruitment agents each year. The British Council produced a report on student recruitment agents that recommended transparency above all else. Self-regulation is acceptable, but information on commission payments should be made public. The University of Nottingham, one of Britain’s prestigious Russell Group universities, holds itself up as an example of an institution using student recruitment agents in an ethical and transparent fashion.
It is easy to lay all the blame on agents when examining the issue of corruption in student recruitment. However, it takes two to tango. Universities need to maintain strong institutional willpower to be transparent and discerning when using student recruitment agents. With that said, is it possible to find a form of candidate management where opportunities for corruption are minimised on both sides? There may well be.
QS Course Finder, active for just over a year now, provides a roadmap for responsible candidate management. Although the most basic function of QS Course Finder is to provide a course directory for students to search through, it can also connect students with admissions officers at universities they are interested in, and vice versa. It does not provide the ‘full service’ approach of traditional agents, and doesn’t make applications on behalf of students – removing the risk of fraud or corruption on behalf of the recruiter. The emphasis is on providing professional and friendly support to students, making sure they have access to the information they need. As long as universities are honest about their own requirements, they should only be connected with suitable candidates.
Student recruitment agents will continue to be a valuable and effective source of talent, revenue and student body diversity in upcoming years, and that’s not a bad thing. As long as they are used responsibly and with transparency, institutions can rightly expect to benefit from their services. Furthermore, as services such as QS Course Finder continue to grow, we may see a seismic change in the nature of candidate management for universities.