As competition for international students heats up, Canadian universities are taking a page from the playbook of their counterparts in Australia and Britain and increasingly turning to paid, foreign-based recruiters to attract students.
The use of education agents, or recruiters, is widespread and growing in Canada, where they are used by public school boards, language schools, colleges and universities, according to a report prepared for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.
Using an agent can be a cost-effective and low-risk way for institutions to tap into new markets, said Robert Coffey, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and co-author of the report. This is particularly true for smaller institutions without the brand-name recognition or enough staff to recruit students from numerous countries. “It’s really based on reputation,” he said. “It’s certainly attractive for institutions that are not well known outside of their home market.”
The study is based on a survey, conducted in 2013, of 145 Canadian school administrators and representatives of government agencies. About 78 percent of respondents from the education sector said their institution used agents. An exception was Quebec, where administrators reported little use of recruiters, preferring to rely on ties with other francophone nations. Of the 37 public universities that participated in the survey, 23 said they used agents, 13 didn’t and one declined to respond.
A majority of participants said their use of recruiting agents has remained the same or increased over the past five years, and 90 percent said they were confident that agents provide accurate information to prospective clients. The top countries from which agents recruit include China, South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and India.
“You can’t be everywhere at once,” explained Brett MacLean, manager of international recruitment at Cape Breton University. “When we leave [a country] we still want to have a representative on the ground that is distributing literature and giving advice on our programs.” CBU uses about 50 agents in 30 countries. Some are relied on more than others but, to be transparent, CBU discloses the total number, he said.
Agents are also familiar with a country’s local customs and traditions and are able to translate documents and help students with the application process. “They are the trusted organization of students and their parents,” said Gonzalo Peralta, executive director of Languages Canada. “Imagine if you had a child who wanted to go to study in China. How do you find the right institution and deal with somebody thousands of miles away to make the arrangements?” For students coming from some countries, such as Colombia or Italy, parents prefer to deal with a local agent rather than a university representative in Canada, he added.
But there can be risks, too, said the report. With overseas agents located far from the partner institution in Canada, oversight can be difficult. There is a risk the agents will place their own financial interests ahead of the needs of students and institutions or will jeopardize a school’s reputation by providing misleading information, the study said. There have been reports of agents colluding with students to falsify documents or to ghostwrite essays and personal statements.
Mr. Coffey said some administrators told him they’ve worked with the same trusted agent for many years and had few concerns about the institution being “credibly and accurately” represented. But he also has heard of agents who are “basically travel agents” and he met some foreign students who hadn’t been well served. “It’s really quite a rough-and-tumble environment,” said Mr. Coffey.
“There’s going to be fantastic agents, average agents and not-so-good agents,” added CBU’s Mr. MacLean. CBU’s process for vetting consultants involves asking new or prospective recruiters to provide at least two references, who are sent a questionnaire about their experiences. “I got one back this morning from someone who gave a scathing report,” he said. CBU maintains regular contact with its agents and keeps them up-to-date on program and course changes.
Still, Mr. MacLean acknowledged some inherent biases in the system. Because individual recruiters tend to represent only a few universities, they may not give prospective students a full range of options. Also, agents are usually paid on commission so if a school pays a smaller fee, the agent may be inclined to recommend a higher-paying one.
According to the CMEC report, the agent’s commission is usually set as a percentage of a student’s first-year tuition. The rates vary by institution and by country. In some countries, including China, it’s common for agents to charge students as well. Mr. MacLean said CBU asks its agents not to do so.
A new report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (due for release Sept. 2) compared agent use in seven countries. It found that using agents leads to higher foreign student registration – especially for Canada. However, Richard Garrett, OBHE’s director for North America, cautioned that comparing “conversion rates” (from prospects making an inquiry to registering as students) is challenging because institutions may use varied methodologies and interpret results differently. The OBHE report notes that the Canadian sample of 37 institutions was dominated by colleges and universities outside the U15 group of research-intensive universities. It said, “It is striking that all the Canadian research-intensive, public universities that responded indicated no use of agents.”
In Canada, there aren’t any federal laws regulating the use of foreign recruiters. The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development along with the Canadian Consortium for International Education recently introduced a free, online agent training course that covers information about Canada’ education system. Those who complete the Canada Course for Education Agents have the option of paying $350 to take a final exam, and those who pass the exam are listed in an online directory of Canada Course Graduates. More than 3,000 people have registered for the course and 126 people from 41 countries have passed the test since the first one was held in May 2013, said Mr. Peralta of Languages Canada. Some institutions are now requiring agents to take the test as an added quality control measure, he said.
Australia was an early adopter of agents and has stiff regulatory processes in place to guard against misconduct. In Britain, the use of agents is also commonplace. However, the practice remains controversial in the United States. After a lengthy debate, the National Association for College Admission Counseling last year reversed its longstanding ban on the use of foreign agents and agreed to allow institutions to adopt the practice as long as they followed certain disclosure guidelines.
The benefits far outweigh the risks. My only concern is that the position should not be commission based. A more viable structure and relationship with agents needs to be established.