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The murky world of unregulated international student recruiters

The rapid rise in international recruitment has sparked calls for rules and standards to govern third-party recruiters.

BY MATTHEW HALLIDAY | NOV 02 2022

Bipin Kumar arrived in Canada in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at an East Coast university. With degrees already under his belt from universities in Germany and his native India, Mr. Kumar was well-travelled and ready to land on his feet in a new country. He had done his research, and arrived with realistic expectations about life in his new home.

That preparation set Mr. Kumar up for success, but his experience was very different compared to the more challenging circumstances that thousands of international students face in Canada every year. As the international students’ commissioner with the Canadian Federation of Students, Mr. Kumar has become intimately familiar with that reality.

“Especially in the past five or six years, we see more and more students coming to Canada who have been led to believe a lot of promises about employment, housing, cost of living, what kinds of supports they will have,” he says. “Once they get here, they find things are a lot different. They can’t pay their bills, they’re living a dozen to a house an hour away from campus, they may have no community or social supports…. There are a lot of promises made that don’t match reality.”

Increasingly, those big promises are coming courtesy of education agents: freelance international recruiters who work with prospective students to provide advice on schools and programs and help with applications and study-permit documents. According to a 2021 estimate from the Germany-based International Consultants for Education and Fairs (an organization that promotes global education and works to train agents), up to half of all international students arriving in Canada may now be referred by agents. With 448,000 foreign study permits approved by Canada in 2021 – an increase of 70 per cent in five years – that’s a lot of agents, and a lot of promises.

And indeed, agents have become invaluable to institutions seeking to bolster international recruitment. But a fraction of agents – due to incompetence or outright fraudulence – have become notorious for providing incomplete or inaccurate guidance to prospective students. In the worst cases, the outcomes can be dire.

In February and March 2022, the House of Commons standing committee on citizenship and immigration hosted hearings on foreign student recruitment, which dealt in part with these concerns. One committee witness was immigration lawyer Wei William Tao. He testified
about the false expectations that some agents create – bedazzling students and their families with dreams of a Canadian education, only to see those same students forking over small fortunes to end up in inappropriate programs in unfamiliar communities, facing challenges they were never prepared to encounter.

“One should not be surprised by issues such as family separation, mental-health crises, increasing narratives of suicide, and families abroad losing their entire life savings to try and sponsor a family member’s education in Canada,” he said. “We are complicit in the harms this system has created.”

Another witness was Shamira Madhany, the managing director of World Education Services, a not-for-profit that provides credential evaluations for foreign-trained professionals and academics in the United States and Canada. Ms. Madhany has become an advocate for regulatory reform in the agent industry.

“What we have seen in terms of both the statistical data and anecdotal data is that students don’t have all the information before they make decisions to come,” she tells University Affairs. “They don’t know what they’re getting into.”

In short, she says Canada’s success as one of the world’s premier destinations for international study has surged too far, too fast, failing to keep up with the problems that rapid growth has created. What’s needed now, she and other advocates say, is real regulation around an industry that has grown almost entirely in obscurity: a national strategy to replace the patchwork of voluntary agent training programs and institutional vetting currently in place.

“It’s become about getting kids in the seats,” Ms. Madhany told the committee. “And there’s no thought to the fact that these are individuals whose hopes and dreams are being played upon.”

A lucrative business

There’s no question that Canadian universities need international students – and so does the Canadian economy. In 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, international students contributed more than $20 billion to Canada, and supported about 218,000 jobs. (Given the growth in international student visas since 2018, those numbers are almost certainly higher today.) In 2018-2019, they accounted for all of the enrolment growth at Canadian universities, offsetting a slight decline in domestic students. And they pay, on average, three times more in tuition than Canadian students.

“Institutions use agents to diversify, tapping into different countries they normally wouldn’t be able to, due to resourcing,” says Melissa Payne, director of membership, research and learning with the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE). “It’s difficult for an institution to be in all of these different countries, speaking local languages, connecting with students and families, at a deep level. So they really are working with agents to sort of bridge that gap and to be that on-the-ground support person.”

And universities are willing to pay handsomely. Compensation for agents is generally a confidential matter, but it’s usually a percentage of a student’s first-year tuition – somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15 to 20 per cent, according to agents who spoke to University Affairs, making for thousands of dollars per student.

“It’s difficult for an institution to be in all of these different countries, speaking local languages, connecting with students and families, at a deep level. So they really are working with agents to sort of bridge that gap and to be that on-the-ground support person.”

This dependency isn’t unique to Canada, and neither are these concerns. Other countries that rely heavily on international student recruitment, including Australia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, have grappled in recent years with questions around the role of education agents. Until 2013, the U.S. National Association for College Admission Counseling forbade member institutions from using agents. It later softened the prohibition to “discourage” their use, and U.S. universities and colleges have increasingly turned to using agents in recent years. Australia takes a relatively hard line, with legislation to govern the relationship between educational institutions and agents, stipulating certain conditions that institutions must meet.

In Canada, however, agent use has only recently begun sparking the kind of discussion it has elsewhere. The policy environment is correspondingly thin, with one exception: Manitoba’s International Education Act, implemented in 2016, provides a measure of regulatory oversight similar to Australia’s legislation. Otherwise, however, there are few rules in Canada governing institutions’ engagement with agents.

Varied approaches

Universities themselves do vet agents. The University of Alberta, for example, “takes references from other Canadian universities and conducts site visits of agencies to view operations and to speak with their team before entering into any agreement,” according to John Gregory, director of international recruitment and transnational programs.

Memorial University has been working with agents since the mid-2000s to raise the institution’s profile internationally. At first, the university only engaged a small number of agents, says Keir McIsaac, manager of admissions with Memorial. “We’ve taken a fairly conservative approach in building those relationships over time,” he says, “rather than quickly accumulating them.”

Memorial will directly approach agents who are working in markets the university is interested in. It also works with agents who approach the university independently. Those agents may be working for major international agencies, or very small outfits. “It really does depend on the market,” says Mr. McIsaac. “One agent that we work with in Latin America, it’s literally three generations of women that are running this small mom-and-daughter shop, and they’re very connected with the community there.”

Memorial has developed its own online agent training sessions, covering university and local life as well as its application and admission processes. Memorial’s slow-and-steady approach to adding agents has helped keep the training and onboarding process manageable.

Meanwhile, the University of Manitoba has been working with agents since the late 1990s.

“I can’t really speak to how all things were done prior to my time,” says its director of student recruitment, Lisa Kachulak-Babey, who took the position in 2012. “But I can say that once I did come to the university, we made some significant changes in terms of putting parameters on the application process, making it much more rigorous to become an agent, as well as putting into place some really formal training programs.”

That includes a multi-step expression of interest in which agents are asked to explain what markets they recruit from, describe their business, and explain their background knowledge. If agents pass that process, the application becomes more in-depth, with questions about their fees, marketing, and more. The university requires reference checks and eventually a committee reviews all applications.

Some of this diligence can be chalked up to Manitoba’s International Education Act. It requires institutions to maintain a register of all agents they use and ensure the institutions abide by a code of conduct. That code is light on specifics, but does stipulate that institutions must train agents adequately, and enter into binding agreements that include further stipulations for agents themselves. Those include disclosing all fees to students in advance, acting “with honesty and integrity,” and refraining from providing any guidance to students in connection with immigration applications – only responding to study-permit queries.

Technology vs. regulations

Though Manitoba is the only province where agents need to satisfy a regulatory body, some critics say that recent advances in the recruitment field have complicated that oversight – in particular, the advent of aggregator recruiters. The best-known of these is ApplyBoard, which was founded in 2015 in Waterloo, Ont., by brothers Martin, Massi and Meti Basiri, who are former international students from Iran. The company claims that 75,000 students currently studying in Canada have used its services.

ApplyBoard’s model is simple: prospective students visit their website and enter information based on what and where they want to study. They can narrow their choices via ApplyBoard’s artificial intelligence software (a series of online questions that guide students to more specific schools and programs) and agents (which ApplyBoard prefers to call recruitment partners) who help to refine those choices.

Earl Blaney is a registered Canadian immigration consultant, and an education agent with a focus on the Philippines. He’s also been a vocal critic of the education-agent industry. That’s partly because of what he’s seen during interactions with other agents, some of whom were happy to take clients’ money in exchange for study-permit applications, despite knowing a client’s likelihood of success was low. “Dealing with clients in the Philippines, and going to agency events, I was blown away, just really appalled a lot of the time,” he says. “I became very deeply disturbed by it.”

Mr. Blaney is especially critical of aggregators such as ApplyBoard, contending that their model renders legislation like Manitoba’s essentially toothless, since that legislation regulates an institution’s relationship with individual agents, not tech platforms. “ApplyBoard is there as a middleman, but the aggregator is not charged with supervising agents under the legislation, the institutions are,” he says. “How can the institution do that if they have no idea who the agent is?”

In conversation, ApplyBoard co-founder Meti Basiri insists that the company’s rigorous standards are sufficient to fulfil the spirit and letter of the regulations. So far this year, the company has processed more applications every month than it did in all of 2019, he says, yet it is fielding fewer complaints about recruiter behaviour, thanks to its diligence about weeding out bad actors.

And Ms. Kachulak-Babey, at the U of Manitoba, says ApplyBoard’s applicants tend to outperform those from other agencies. “They do a good job to work with agents to make sure that when students submit their documents, that they’re actually a good fit for our program … so we’re not just filling the applications funnel at the top end with people who are really not qualified.”

Mr. Blaney is not convinced, but he does concede that Manitoba’s efforts are more than what is on offer elsewhere in the country. “The aggregators are not fully to blame,” he says. “The problem is the policy void.”

New oversight?

The problems raised by bad actors in the education-agent field aren’t entirely new to Canadian regulators. A 2017 report by the House of Commons citizenship and immigration committee tackled the issue of “ghost consultants,” or fraudulent immigration advisers who exploit clients with dubious information before leaving them high and dry.

The controversy over ghost consultants led to the dissolution of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council and its replacement late last year with a new body, the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CICC). The CICC now oversees two new categories of consultants: regulated Canadian immigration consultants (RCICs) and regulated international student immigration advisers. Any immigration consultant providing advice on permanent residency or other immigration matters must be authorized by the CICC under one of those two categories.

This doesn’t directly affect education agents, however, because agents aren’t supposed to be providing immigration advice, per se – only advice on education and study permits. This in itself has been flagged as a problem, given that many international students seek to study in Canada as the first step on their pathway to immigration. In 2021, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) rejected 40 per cent of study permit applications to Canada, despite the fact that they were from students who had already been accepted by Canadian institutions. The poor quality of advising from agents was cited as one likely reason.

But the CICC has a roundabout purview over education agents. Its “agents regulation” doesn’t directly regulate agents – instead, it regulates RCICs that enter into agreements with agents to collaboratively advise prospective students.

“It’s imperative that agents work alongside RCICs who can provide competent advice,” says Christopher May, director of public affairs and communications for the CICC, “rather than attempting to provide educated guesses on immigration processes that can have life-changing impacts for those students.”

But there is no requirement for agents and RCICs to work together. “The college does not want to license people overseas. They don’t want to do it. It’s too much of a headache for them,” Mr. Blaney says. “Without the government putting a gun to their head and saying, ‘do it,’ the college is going to do nothing.”

Provincial efforts

In May 2022, the Commons committee hearings on student recruitment resulted in a final report to Parliament, which included 35 recommendations. One was very similar to Mr. Blaney’s suggestion, that the IRCC “work with provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as Canadian designated learning institutions, to regulate recruiters in the international educational sector, and ensure that the information packages provided to these recruiters include information on how student applicants can safeguard themselves against fraud.”

In the absence of any such regulation, a smattering of voluntary efforts have sprung up across the country. In Nova Scotia, EduNova, a co-op association of educational institutions, has launched a free agent training program in collaboration with CBIE, intended to improve the quality of agent advising, and to reduce study-permit rejections.

“We would never want an agent to be selling students on a promise of a university offer, collecting their tuition, and then the student shows up on campus and the school has never heard of them. That’s the kind of thing that has happened elsewhere.”

“We’re looking to develop modules and curriculum in conjunction with CBIE,” says EduNova president and CEO Shawna Garrett, “so that our agents are learning about all of our educational institutions, academic programs that are offered, and also the province, what careers and labour market opportunities are available if students decide that they would like to stay, and also the immigration pathways that could be available to them.”

Nova Scotia hasn’t seen a great deal of explicit agent fraud, says Dr. Garrett. But EduNova wants to head off such problems at the pass. “We would never want an agent to be selling students on a promise of a university offer,” she says, “collecting their tuition, and then the student shows up on campus and the school has never heard of them. That’s the kind of thing that has happened elsewhere.”

The Nova Scotia program follows the model of the Saskatchewan Agent Training Program, launched earlier this year with similar goals. But for now, such efforts remain voluntary. And as institutions rely more and more on international students, and the federal government sets evermore ambitious targets for attracting students to Canada, the consequences will only grow if cracks in the system are left unaddressed.

Some observers, like Mr. Blaney, suspect Canada could be on the brink of a “massive deportation of international graduates” – students who use their studies as a pathway to post-graduation work permits, only to find that poor advice from unregulated agents has set them up for failure in Canada’s labour market.

“We need to deal with this,” says Mr. Kumar, “because we see students’ experiences deteriorating. We see more people applying to come, and if we want them to stay after they graduate and make a life here, we have to set them up for success.”

PUBLISHED BY
Matthew Halliday
Matthew Halliday is a journalist, editor, and copywriter whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers nationwide.
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