Universities, international students and “agents” – the perceptional disconnect
“There is a huge perceptional disconnect that is endemic within university staff at all levels and demonstratively so, when it comes to the role and use of ‘agents'”
In his second entry for The PIE Blog, Naveen Chopra, Chairman of The Chopras, one of India’s top study abroad agencies, once again challenges the definition of and criticisms levelled at “agents” in the international education industry. See his previous blog here.
At the core of the persistent and on-going debate within the wider media and university sector on the use and relevance of “agents” since many years, there is a huge perceptional disconnect that is endemic within university staff at all levels and demonstratively so, when it comes to the role and use of “agents”.
Within universities across the world, there seems to be some deep psychological need for the adamant use of “put down” images and terminology that itself starts with the continued use of the word “agent” for those who form the front line of universities and provide a service and perform tasks that are far removed from the domain of the “agent” except in the mode of payment, a commission. This is in an age of extreme “political” correctness and demands for accuracy in the use of language.
The Raimo-Humfrey-Huang report provides a definition of “agents”, and I quote in abridged form: “The more contemporary and appropriate definition of the agent activity in relation to higher education is provided on the gov.uk website under Export Agents for International Trade and this includes:
- Help to sell goods abroad
- Act on the principal’s behalf by introducing him/her to overseas customers
- Give information and contacts for overseas markets
- Identify opportunities
- Cut costs of setting up overseas offices
In all cases, the agent is expected to possess a skill, knowledge, experience or contacts which it is advantageous to the owner or provider of the commodity to utilise…” (For full definition please see the report).
“Does this definition capture what actually happens at Ground Zero? Judge for yourselves”
Does this definition capture what actually happens at Ground Zero? Judge for yourselves.
Band One students are those who are very clear of the career, they wish to pursue and are thoroughly researched. These have spent humongous time to trawl the Internet, compared all the available course options, rankings, costs and all the rest that form their decision parameters. They have consulted the best within their parental social circles that would include high achieving professionals and successful individuals.
Within this band a small number are focused on the one university they wish to study at even though they will apply to, perhaps half dozen. In this band, their mind will already be made up that if an offer comes from that one university. Those who are willing to spend the time are confident of their ability to turn in the best applications, are confident of visa documentation etc. will generally form the “direct” student band to universities. Universities best love these because there is no “commission” cost. The ratio of students falling in this band is relatively small. However, those that do not wish to spend valuable time on the process or are not clear or confident of the visa part of their application are approaching “agents” for help.
Band Two are students who are playing the “what are my options” game, in terms of countries, universities etc; throw in work during or after study, migration aims, scholarships and multiple sources of vocal advice that includes parents, relatives, peer friends and the choice pot is already looking like a rainbow palette. Most students in this band will apply to multiple courses in multiple universities in multiple countries.
This band generally forms the vast majority of student visiting the “agent” for multiple discussions and help in condensing down to what are the best of the enormous options available to them. Within the eastern civilisation, families are often involved with this process along with the “agent” often even at postgraduate levels.
“Many don’t do the right thing and end up applying directly to universities about whom they have achieved clarity with ‘agents'”
Many from this band don’t do the right thing and end up applying directly to universities about whom they have achieved clarity with “agents”. Universities hide behind the Data Protection act to deny “agents” a look in to save commission. The data of students advised belongs to the “agent” in the first place. Is that ethical?
We have on record an average of 17 times for students visiting us over one to three year period for discussions and advice, though we recognise that those students who start planning for undergraduate courses in year 10, 11, or 12 and for postgraduate at year one or two of their degree, are our best clients. A part of the “agent” contribution and functioning that universities often refuse to see or acknowledge as possible.
Band Three are students who are confused, underachievers, emotionally under-mature or who need help just to frame what they should be doing in life. These often need a lot of help over multiple sessions and parents are often in the counseling loop, sometimes themselves requiring counseling. These are on the look out for trusted organisations – those who have a “good” reputation. This group is susceptible to unscrupulous “agents” who sell stories rather than provide consultation and genuine advice.
Band Four are students who are looking to get into a Western country under any pretext, the student visa being a “safe” route, with the view to working full time during their student visa tenure and trying all back door means to gain a foot hold or migration. The group that causes the maximum trouble to everyone and is the root cause of the on-going debate related to “agents” and universities.
“What part of the services or operations of companies who cater to these students fall under the definition of ‘agents’? Is it not about time that the terminology to describe such companies change?”
From Band One to Band Three, I would pose the question from universities and their staff, what part of the services, process or activity or operations of companies who cater to these bands of students fall under the definition of “agents”? Is it not about time that the terminology to describe such companies change?
Those catering to Band four do fall under the “agent” tag and should be banned in any and every way and by all available means to identify and black list such individuals or companies should be taken.
So what terms factually define the work that “agents” catering to Band One to Three performs? Advisor, Consultant, Mentor, Guide, Counselor, Specialist are some that accurately define this work, yet there is extreme resistance to using any terminology other than “agent” within universities and their staff, top down. Is this because universities and their staff insist on viewing the relationship as an up-down relationship where the university staffs are the masters and the “agents” servants? How can anyone talk of “partnership”, the image of which is one of equality, mutual respect and value addition in one breath and then use the term “agent”, whose meaning and mental image we all know is derogatory and demeaning? Perhaps this encapsulates to perfection the underlying argument that I make about the Perceptional Disconnect at universities. Intellectually I take great umbrage at the usage of the term as it neither accurately describes what we do nor denotes respect for our activities.
The managing of “agents” aspect is also exercising the universities’ minds, but requires another article that I shall endeavor to pen, if it helps the cause of arriving at a workable blueprint for both sides.