Efforts by Canadian universities over the past few years to attract more international students raises the tricky issue of the role played by education agents in recruitment. Some universities, as a matter of policy, do not work with education agents. Others have done so for years, with positive results.
Education agents assist institutions to recruit foreign students on a fee or commission basis. Reputable agents are knowledgeable about your country’s education system and visa rules, and ideally have some acquaintance with your institution. However, not all agents are reputable.
“Education agents run the gamut from out-and-out shysters, on one end of the spectrum, to people who are totally dedicated to providing a comprehensive service, full of integrity, for the student and for the institution that they’re working with,” says Gardiner Wilson, an expert in international student recruitment.
Mr. Wilson is a former director of policy and research at the Canadian Education Centre Network, or CEC Network, a non-profit company that markets Canada as a destination for international students. A former diplomat, he recently collaborated with the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada on its report, “Recruiting International Students in India: A Good Practices Guidebook”.
Mr. Wilson says an unethical agent may, among other things, try to recruit students who are not qualified or are trying to enter the host country fraudulently. Countries that have had the most problems with fraudulent agents include India and to a lesser extent China, he says.
Kristen Sutherland, international recruitment specialist at Saint Mary’s University, says her institution uses education agents on a limited basis. “Saint Mary’s has a mandate for internationalization. Nearly 20 percent of our student population is international students. So, in that context, you can’t be everywhere at once” to recruit students.
When working with agents who are not employed by your institution “you do face a lot of difficulty and challenges, depending on the person,” she says. “If you have a strong agent, they can be your best representative. If you have someone who is unethical, it does you no service to work with that person.”
At Saint Mary’s, says Ms. Sutherland, “we have really tried to work with agents that we can train, that have been on our campus, and that have a fit with our institution.” She hasn’t had any negative experiences with agents, but adds that the possibility is certainly there. “I’ve heard lots of horror stories.”
Kim Bartlett, director of admissions and recruitment at McGill University, says McGill doesn’t use education agents, although there is no specific policy against the practice. Rather, McGill relies on its international reputation and has a staff of eight people who work on recruitment and outreach activities, she says.
Two of Canada’s key competitor countries, Australia and the United Kingdom, “have embraced education agents wholeheartedly,” says Mr. Wilson. However, these two countries also have bodies (in the U.K., the British Council and in Australia, IDP Education Pty. Ltd.) that screen education agencies and offer training programs and workshops for agents. Nothing like that exists in Canada.
In the United States – which, like Canada, has been slower to adopt the use of education agents – a new non-profit group, the American International Recruitment Council, was created last May to set standards for international student recruitment and certify overseas recruiters.
The CEC Network used to offer training workshops and agency screening. However, the network ran into financial troubles and was closed in 2009. Some CEC Network staff are trying to restart the network, but “my personal view is that by the time this article appears in University Affairs, the CEC Network will no longer exist,” says Mr. Wilson.
Founded in 1995 with funding from the federal government, the CEC Network, at its height, operated 13 Canadian Education Centres around the world. Mr. Wilson says it is ironic that as Canadian universities ramp up recruitment efforts in the face of strong international competition, the CEC Network is struggling, if not defunct.
He adds, however, that there are signs of a shift in attitude at Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade that education agents can play an important role in recruitment.
Perhaps a sign of the growing use of agents in Canada, an organization called ICEF (International Consultants for Education and Fairs) is holding its first workshop in Canada, in Toronto, May 13-15. According to ICEF, these workshops “bring together international educators and carefully screened, high-quality student recruitment agents at networking forums … devoted to achieving results and growing international student enrolments.”
The number of full-time international students at Canadian universities has been growing until recently and sits at around 77,000, according to AUCC. The number-one source country for international students to Canada is China, at approximately 15,000. A recent report prepared for DFAIT estimates that international students at all levels of study add about $6.5 billion annually to the Canadian economy.