Is the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s anti-agent stance a case of Americentrism?
“If US institutions hope to continue to attract international students in an increasingly competitive marketplace, then we had better sit at the table and find a way to make this work”
Jean-Marc Alberola, president of Bridge Education Group, reflects on a recent proposal to prohibit the use of compensated oversea student recruitment agencies in part of the US, and looks at the arguments for and against using agents.
After much study and debate on the topic of commissioned agents in international student recruitment, is it time for many in the US higher edu community to reflect upon the notion that it might be viewing the agent debate from an overly US focused perspective?
To many, the recent proposal by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to extend the prohibition on incentive compensation to the recruitment of foreign students who are not eligible to receive federal student assistance is bewildering. That is, it is bewildering unless we consider that this might very well be a case of bias, or having a US centric perspective, with an implied belief, either consciously or subconsciously, that the context of domestic student recruitment somehow applies and is relevant outside the United States.
MSCHE references Title IV, section 487(a)(20) of the Higher Education Act in its draft amendment for public comment, which specifically prohibits the practice of incentive compensation domestically, while simultaneously exempting incentive payment for the recruitment of international students. MSCHE seems to believe that what applies to an American domestic scenario should also apply outside the United States.
“Our key competitors have been able to make the engagement of commissioned agents in international student recruitment work in a transparent and ethical way”
However, not all countries share this view. Canada, Australia and the UK, our key competitors, have been able to make the engagement of commissioned agents in international student recruitment work for them in a transparent and ethical way. What is so exceptional about the U.S. that we can’t do the same? These competing nations are, in fact, many years ahead of us, and consequently more mature in their discussion and analysis of this topic. We can and should learn from them.
For many, this debate appears to be ideological, which in my judgement, often gets in the way of a more nuanced discussion of the facts. I urge anyone who believes passionately on either side of this issue to review our comprehensive report on this topic. In June 2016, Bridge Education Group and StudentMarketing, went to extraordinary lengths to provide an unbiased and comprehensive report on agency adoption by US institutions. The report provides some important insights into what is a multifaceted and evolving practice.
One key takeaway was that the practice in the US is still largely in its infancy. However, we know US universities cannot achieve the global presence they require to build their brand and recruit international students without agents. Often cited alternatives, such as international student fairs, provide, quite frankly, a dismal return on investment absent an institutional in-country presence. Furthermore, not engaging with agents at this critical time, when we are facing what appears to be the end of a 10-year run of growth in international student enrollments, is a huge mistake. The US is losing market share to other countries; international students make up just 4.7% of total university enrollments, which is lower than the UK (21.5%), Canada (13.3%) and Australia (21%). Consider, too, that these statistics were calculated in 2016, prior to the “Trump slump” and when the dollar was at a 14-year high.
“US universities cannot achieve the global presence they require to build their brand and recruit international students without agents”
Given that we don’t have government regulation on the use of agents in international student recruitment, and, in fact, our government takes two different views on the topic (the Department of Commerce in favor and the State Department opposed), organizations like NACAC and AIRC are playing a key role in articulating best practices, principles and ethical guidelines. The best thing we can do is have open and transparent dialog and educate the marketplace. This is happening, and is why the pace of agency adoption is growing. According to our research, approximately one third of all US universities engage with agents directly and/or via intermediaries, such as pathway providers.
Those who argue against agent commission cite a number of points. One important issue, the misnomer of “double dipping”, has been debunked. It is irrelevant that an agent may receive funds from both the university and the student. If commissions are low, or agents provide additional services, they can and will make up the difference by charging the student.
We are also seeing multiple references to “transparency”. In some cases, this means requiring that the student know that the agent receives compensation from the university; in others, that universities disclose the agencies they work with. But in the language-travel space, very much a hybrid of travel and education, students understand that agents are compensated as travel agent are. Is it possible that we are imposing our own cultural lens when reviewing this topic? Is it the case that Chinese students perceive US university representatives to be “biased” because they favor their own institution? Might these students prefer an agent who offers them a larger portfolio of universities, speaks their language and was referred by friends or family? Some research has indicated this to be the case.
Unfortunately, ideological and, all too often insular, views often oversimplify what is a multifaceted issue that merits discussion, analysis and open dialogue.
“Ideological and, all too often insular, views often oversimplify a multifaceted issue that merits discussion, analysis and open dialogue”
The domestic landscape facing US higher education includes declining numbers of high school graduates and diminishing state subsidies for public institutions. It is time for MSCHE to conduct a careful review of the negative impact prohibiting incentive-based recruitment via international recruitment agencies will have on international student enrollments and the financial stress it will cause its members. A prohibition on incentive-based recruitment abroad will require the utmost caution, consideration and due diligence on the topic.
With this goal in mind, Bridge Education Group has again commissioned the assistance of StudentMarketing for phase II of our research, which we are planning to release at the AIRC conference in December. We will survey student perceptions and experiences with agents. Our hope is that it will be another step forward in creating transparency and open dialog, so that stakeholders can work together to make the agent recruiting channel a professional and ethical one. If US institutions hope to continue to attract international students in an increasingly competitive marketplace, then we had better sit at the table and find a way to make this work, as other countries have done.