Within the academic community it is extremely important that we respect different points of view, different interpretations of problems, and different proposals for solutions to our many challenges. Sadly, we live in a time when differing opinions are attacked rather than discussed. This has been exemplified repeatedly by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC).
AIRC was created to certify that ethical professional standards are respected when colleges and universities pay commissions to “third-party” recruitment agents for appropriately identifying and placing students on their campus. The certification process is nicely spelled out on the AIRC website and sounds very reassuring, but there is a lot of distance (figuratively and literally) between where and how agents operate and the US institutions that contract them; this breach leaves a lot of room for miscommunication, misunderstandings and outright deceit that cannot be immediately detected. There is also a lot of ambiguity attached to reassuring words such as “transparency” and “accountability”. Furthermore, the recruitment of international students is not a transaction between equals—students are vulnerable in an unbalanced relationship with agents who are older, more authoritative and more experienced in the world of admissions.
In her coverage of AIRC’s annual conference, Elizabeth Redden addresses several of the practical challenges of AIRC’s accreditation process, among them that agents often contract with sub-agents who may sub-contract further, making adequate supervision of this extended network impossible.
There is still much here to be discussed and examined, but AIRC does not seem to tolerate doubts or debate. Every news article, editorial or blog in the professional press that makes unfavorable reference to the use of agents is immediately condemned by AIRC leadership and/or members. AIRC has denounced those who disagree with their goals to the point of some very personal insults.
The assault on the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) was astounding. There was certainly pressure from within the organization, but AIRC helped give this pressure clout and voice. Membership in NACAC is not a prerequisite for accreditation or any other process that would determine an institution’s legitimacy yet institutions determined to work with agents along with the AIRC wanted “no holes barred” membership in NACAC — they were determined to have it on their own terms.
In the past NACAC’s Statement of Good Practice rejected the practice of rewarding or remunerating institutions or parties for the recruitment or placement of students. AIRC was single-minded in their determination to have NACAC’s “permission” (if not their blessing) for member institutions to work with agents and colluded in the movement to have the wording changed for international recruitment. NACAC backed down. The result is dichotomous standards that allow remuneration to third-party recruiters outside of the US while rejecting the same practice within the US. Where are the ethics in that?
The recently circulated AIRC history includes the confrontation with NACAC and declares, “AIRC Members are vindicated” — a strange choice of phrase indeed.
Now that the annual meetings of NACAC and AIRC are behind us, I worry that the issue of agents will drift out of the professional press and away from public debate. There is still much to be concerned about. In a recent World Education Services (WES) survey of prospective students who had worked with an agent, only 14% indicated that they understood that the agent received a commission for their placement, while most had no idea what the relationship between agent and institution might be. This is an ethical problem.
Agencies might be evaluated and accredited but there remains no sure way to guarantee the behavior of individual agents with prospective students. The distance is too great and the mechanisms for supervision too sparse. The result of AIRC’s successful lobbying has been to reduce international recruitment to an efficient financial transaction, opening the door wider to questionable practices while they are assuring the world that they have everything under control.