We’ve decided to be very transparent in our work with student recruitment agents

Vincenzo Raimo, Director, International Office at the University of Nottingham, UK, writes…

“The value of international students to UK universities is unquestionable and much more than just financial: they help create more diverse and interesting student communities, they help UK students develop a more global outlook and they help UK universities compete with the very best in the world by ensuring our student body, particularly at postgraduate level, is made up of the very best students from around the world.

But the need to bridge income shortfalls has put a great deal of pressure on international student recruiters to bring-in more students and increase income levels.

And while UK universities are very good at talking about the income that comes from international students, they’re less good at understanding the costs.

According to the annual benchmarking of international student recruitment costs undertaken by The Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum (AUIDF), 61% of new international students admitted to Australian universities last year came through an agent.

“One wonders what we’re afraid might come out”

The AUIDF annual exercise is one UK counterparts have been unwilling to repeat since a 2006 experiment – one wonders what we’re afraid might come out of better knowledge of costs? Like the Australians, one of the biggest costs in international student recruitment to UK universities is commission paid to recruitment agents and educational consultants who help universities achieve international student intake targets.

Although we don’t have the equivalent data for the UK, there’s no reason to think that our position is very different to that of the Australians. A freedom of information exercise reported in The Times Higher Education early this year suggested that UK universities spend about £60m annually on recruitment agents – I’d suggest the figure is closer to £120m based on the Australian data and the fact that almost every UK university makes use of international recruitment agents.

“I’d suggest the figure is closer to £120m”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this level of spend on commission but it’s important that these and other costs are fully understood if international recruitment is going to continue to be worth it (and keep me in a job I enjoy!). As well as the direct marketing and recruitment costs, universities need to factor in the increasing costs of supporting international students while they’re in the UK and meeting our compliance responsibilities to the UKBA – and remember that these are all before we start the teaching process.

Agents are an incredibly important part of the international student recruitment process. Good agents fill a gap in the market by providing advice and support to applicants considering overseas study options; and they undertake work which most UK universities just couldn’t manage by themselves by providing a permanent advisory service in-country. Some recruitment agents go further by providing English language classes and pre-departure support; some arrange flights, sell UK phone SIM cards, arrange private accommodation and some of the very best agents also support students’ re-entry home with employment advice and support.

But a bit like the position of insurance and mortgage sales advice in the UK some years ago, UK universities’ work with agents is completely unregulated. In the same way that you really didn’t know whether your Financial Adviser was giving you the best possible advice rather than being swayed by commission rates, there’s evidence to suggest that the same is true today in the international student recruitment market.

There’s very little transparency in UK universities’ work with agents: finding out which universities use which agents can be quite a challenge and none, until The University of Nottingham’s announcement, will tell you what levels of commission they pay and what other incentives (bonus payments, trips to the UK, and other inducements they provide agents to persuade students to select one university over another). Some UK universities even have ‘secret agents’, school counsellors and others who are paid for student referrals – including schools here in the UK which have large numbers of international students.

“Some UK universities even have ‘secret agents’”

At The University of Nottingham we’ve decided to be very transparent in our work with student recruitment agents. We believe that agents can play a very important role in supporting applicants to UK universities and that there’s nothing to be ashamed of by working openly with them. But we’re very clear about what we do and also what we won’t do. All of our recruitment agents, carefully selected and appointed, are listed on our website – there are no ‘secret agents’ and our policy is not to pay commission for student referrals to teachers and school counsellors. And our commission rates are published openly on our website.

It’s been suggested that our policy is a naive one – we’re giving sensitive market information to our competitors and that by not paying teachers and school counsellors we’re losing out on students. Time will tell. Our hope though is that others will follow our lead, that the UK develops a reputation for ethical international student recruitment and that the right students for Nottingham will be advised to apply to us because we’re the right university for them and not because we’re paying more than a competitor. We’ll continue to work with recruitment agents supporting and helping them to give applicants the best possible advice about the University and supporting applicants with the daunting process of applying and making plans to study in Britain.”

Vincenzo Raimo is pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading in the UK.