“The fact that most students and universities are satisfied with agents does not mean that activity and relationships are maximised”
Vincenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Reading and Dr Iona Huang, Senior Lecturer, Harper Adams University, share their thoughts on OBHE’s recent report on agent use and what more can be done to support universities to optimise their agent relationships.
The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) this week published an incredibly informative report on international student recruitment agents. Many of the findings will not come as a surprise to those working in this area. Agents are vital to universities meeting international student recruitment targets and as student numbers have increased, so too has our reliance on agents. In fact, the OBHE reports that agents are now almost as important as university web sites in students deciding where to study.
But the fact that most students and universities are satisfied with agents, as found by the OBHE, does not mean that activity and relationships are maximised and that UK universities do not have issues with their agent work that needs attention. It is worrying that the OBHE found 20% of UK university relationships with agents to be outside of any formal contract and that where contracts exist 45% do not include any performance measures.
“It is worrying that the OBHE found 20% of UK university relationships with agents to be outside of any formal contract”
Together with Christine Humfrey, special professor in International Higher Education at the University of Nottingham, we will be publishing our own report on UK universities work with international student recruitment agents next month. Like the OBHE we found that almost all UK universities make explicit use of international student recruitment agents to achieve their objectives. But while the British Council, the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK Council for International Student Affairs all provide some guidance on the use of agents, there is very little support for universities on how to ensure their agent activity is utilised safely and to best effect. And unlike the position in some other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there is no national framework or rules governing the way universities work with agents in the UK. Each university which works with agents has its own policies and procedures, framework for relationships and commission rates.
With the support of The British Council and the collaboration of a representative group of universities, including one which claims not to use agents, in-depth interviews, data collection and analysis of university– agent relationships, from the university perspective, were undertaken in 2013 to help better inform the sector’s use of agents and to share good practice.
“There is very little support for universities on how to ensure their agent activity is utilised safely and to best effect”
Our study reports the view from universities and different approaches adopted to agent relationships. We found that in most cases more could be done to ensure greater returns on investment in agent relationships while also providing greater protection for universities. Ten recommendations emerged from our research. Adoption of the recommendations will very much depend on an individual institutions risk appetite: how much are they willing to invest (time and money), what sorts of agencies they are happy to contract with and what type of contractual relationships they are prepared to accept.