Universities, agents and international students: contribution and the controversy

“Let’s get this straight, shall we?”

Naveen Chopra, Chairman of The Chopras, one of India’s top study abroad agencies, takes on some of the criticisms aimed at agents in the international education industry.

Lately, a lot of stories have appeared in the media across the western world currently led by Australia’s newspapers, with headlines such as Gaping cracks open up in the Ivory Towers. Everyone is in on the act, including ABC’s Four Corners TV programme; which tried to demolish the reputation of Australian universities and the “agents” they use.

NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption’s paper points to falling standards at Australian universities and “the increasingly conspicuous role of third-party “agents” in recruiting students as a concerning development.

“‘Agents’ are an easy target and scapegoat”

How agents are responsible for a fall in standards at any university, given that they have absolutely no say in the management or running of any institution they represent, is beyond me. Then again, “agents” are an easy target and scapegoat.

That is not to say that all “agents” are bathed in milk, quite the contrary; many justify the negative perception, but most of those who are the best in the business, the drivers of the student traffic, are providing an essential service to student clients, and indeed in many cases to the universities they work with in helping frame and implement local strategies.

These are front-line, innovative and ethical organisations that do not deserve the “agent” tag by any stretch. They are “agents” only in the mode of payment, a commission.

Over the years I have been noting a lot of similar negative stories appearing in various media across the globe. The PIE News has tracked and published many articles and views from within the industry on these subjects in the past few years. Conscientious objectors to the “agent” factor appear to be led by Mr Vincenzo Raimo from his Nottingham University days to his present position of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Reading.

“He neglects to mention the over £10m per year created for his university without risk and with minimal investment”

Mr Raimo’s core position stems from the stance of “undue” influence that agents have acquired over the student traffic and cost of student acquisition. He points to over £1m that his university paid its agents but neglects to mention the over £10m per year created for his university without risk and with minimal investment.

No one seems to have taken a measure of how much it costs a university to sift through all of the thousands of direct applications before they even get condensed to the lot that prima facie qualify from which selections can be made; or the cost of enrolling students who are not suited to the university. Compare this to the applications that come pre-vetted to meet entry requirements, and pre-counselled over multiple sessions, to the point of the university being one of the best fits for the student.

And what about the “cost” of empty seats in many courses and classrooms across universities?

Within the global education space, the choice matrix for students is so huge in terms of countries, courses and universities and the information overload so baffling that these market dynamics have built the agency brands more than anything else. It certainly did for us at The Chopras.

In today’s fast changing world, where jobs are likely to disappear or be created by the time a student completes a course, the future is hugely uncertain, and making choices as to what course to study and where, is quite an ask and requires in-depth expertise within today’s knowledge economy.

Most sensible universities look out for this class of company.

Moving on to the other wider debate within western societies fuelled by the immigration discourse; let us put aside, for a moment, the huge economic contributions that international students make in different markets: £15bn+ in Britain; AUS$17.5 bn+ in Australia; billions of dollars in the US.

Given the huge supply-demand deficiency for quality education in Asia, the move by western countries and universities to “sell” themselves to international students netted massive numbers of aspiring students from China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh.

Whilst this movement catapulted education to be one of the biggest export earner, it also brought the problems in its wake that are now so much in the news. The question is, what were or are the key factors fuelling the problem?

Let us look at the nature of the international student. Broadly, international students can be stratified into three bands in socio-economic and “intent” terms. The top strata are students from very wealthy families, sort of the creamy layer.

For these, the sole intent of going overseas for an education is to gain the best education that money can buy. These are looking for exposure, a broadening of their mental horizons to prepare for a truly globalised world. This band tends to head back home after graduating or, the top performing ones might land jobs that they will take for a couple of years before heading back.

“These students actively contribute to the larger issues of skill deficiencies in key sectors”

In the second band fall students from middle to upper middle class families who generally have enough money to send their children overseas for their education but, many have some pressure to work while studying to subsidise themselves and for a large percentage of these, migration is the eventual aim. These students actively contribute to the larger issues of skill deficiencies in key sectors. Aging populations and the apparent lack of desire on the part of local populations to take up courses perceived as hard provide fuel to this segment.

The third band generally can be defined as the “grey market” band and comprises students from the lower socio-economic strata whose agenda is to get into the country on a student visa with the intention of working full time during their academic year and somehow finding their way to immigrate. This is the group that causes maximum damage and controversy that tars the entire student community debate.

So wherein lies the problem? It rests squarely within the third, the “grey” market band. Who is responsible? Please consider this; while the window was open, Sikh students from the Punjab in India (who revere their hair and do not cut it) were being dished out visas for hairdressing courses like pancakes at a party.

“Sikh students from the Punjab were being dished out visas for hairdressing courses like pancakes at a party”

Did the visa officers not know this? Of course they did, so why did it happen? Your guess is as good as mine. This is an extreme case but illustrative.

Originally, various governments took responsibility and assessed the quality, intent, financial capacity of applicants. It appears that the sheer volume of applications overwhelmed the system and some bright bureaucrats probably came up with the idea of passing on this responsibility to universities through the current SVP for Australia, and similar approaches elsewhere.

The US is still interviewing each visa applicant prior to granting a visa, and do not have anywhere near the problems that are on display here. On the other end of the spectrum are those “agents” who actively tap into the lucrative “grey” market. Again, for instance, in Punjab, India, the going rate for an Australian, British or other visa ranges from US$15-30,000. Here documents are forged, financial picture padded and case presented.

Various governments expect, indeed have forced, universities to police this. Does that make any sense at all? How are they supposed to have the means to first carry out the sort of background checks required of such “agents” that fuel this phenomenon, and then to monitor them?

“Various governments expect, indeed have forced, universities to police this”

Finally, besides being huge contributors to the western economy, international students are also, in their home countries, the cheapest, self-paid ambassadors and influence peddlers of the country where they study, as these are the future leaders of their countries.

Let’s get real here and lift the contours of the debate by not passing the blame to the one entity, the “agent” that has absolutely no say in university decision making.

Of course, the grey market “agent” has to be identified and barred but is it not about time that the best of these were co-opted in the debate and in framing the right structure while looking after the best interest of the student?

The Chopras is one of India’s largest and most reputed student counselling organisations, helping over 10,000 students each year achieve their international study ambitions. 

Naveen Chopra is chairman of The Chopras, one of India’s largest and most reputed student counselling organisations, working with over 10,000 students each year.