Over the past weeks a series of reports and articles have circulated addressing issues related to the increased numbers of international students coming to the US. It is important to look at those publications together to gain perspective on the commercial (and potentially corrupt) activities resulting from the trend.
During the NAFSA conference in Denver, May 28 - June 2, 2016, a Bridge/StudentMarketing survey was released indicating that 37 percent of U.S. institutions are now using recruitment agents, a significant increase from previous studies that showed the use of agents in the 20-30 percent range. The institutions that work with them report that on average, 22 percent of their international students are recruited through agencies. The average number of agent partners per institution is 33..
These are remarkable, if not shocking, data. International education in the US, as in Australia and the UK, has apparently become an industry, in which international marketing and recruitment is increasingly outsourced to commercial operators.
Interestingly, while the use of agents is rapidly increasing, more than 70 percent of institutions in the survey expressed concern about possible fraud when working with commission-based intermediaries. The top three reasons not to use agents that resulted from the survey are: a lack of trust of agents, the reputational risk posed by working with third-party agents and financial reasons. The lack of accountability, integrity and transparency are all seen as major concerns. Apparently there are universities that are still strongly reluctant to use agents – either because they are confident that that international students will enroll anyway and/or because of ethical concerns.
The trend towards reliance on intermediaries is evident in another report presented at the NAFSA conference—The Landscape of Pathway Partnerships in the US. More than half (56%) of the 45 universities analysed in this report are not ranked by the US News and World Reports. “Given that many international students consider rankings in their decision-making process, some of these institutions struggle to attract international students,” said Rahul Choudaha, CEO of DrEducation and principal researcher of the report. Ironically, the survey indicated that that 12 percent of the institutions that don’t work directly with agents are working with third-party English as a second language or pathway providers that contract agents to recruit students on their behalf. In other words, there is a direct relation between the increase in pathway programs and use of agents by universities, particularly those that are not highly ranked— in other words, the institutions most likely to be confronting the increased demographic and economic pressures resulting from a dwindling local market and that are making up shortfalls by pursuing international enrollment.
The New York Times recently illustrated the risks of using commercial agents and pathway programs by highlighting the case of Western Kentucky University, that has used an Indian agency to recruit students from that country, evidently, without adequate quality control. As a result, 25 students out of 60 graduate students recruited through that channel had to be sent home, as they did not meet the program requirements.
Another example of how easily agents exploit the current situation for financial gain was demonstrated when Homeland Security announced recently that it had created a fake university in 2013 to tackle visa fraud and uncover a network of individuals using supposed university enrollment as a means to live and work in the US . As a result of the sting, 21 persons, recruiting agents, were arrested, with 1,076 international students involved.
What do these reports and incidents tell us? The competition for international students is becoming more intense, more commercial, more-frequently outsourced, and with increased risk of corruption. Universities and students are both actors and victims of this development, in particular institutions that are not highly ranked and less-competitive and less-sophisticated international students. What is the solution? It would be in the interest of governments, universities and students if the participation of commercial recruiters, for-profit pathway providers and other intermediate businesses would be stopped. This is not likely to happen. An increasing number of commercial enterprises, international students and universities at the lower end of the higher education hierarchy are using loopholes and the current lack of oversight to engage in varying degrees of fraud, contributing to a mismatch between students and institutions and (ultimately) to the decreased quality of education at the institutions involved. It is good that Homeland Security is focusing on corrupt recruiters, that faculty of Western Kentucky University and similar institutions are taking action against these practices, that two-third of US universities still do not use agents, and that most international students are not seduced by the temptation of commercial recruiters. But by addressing the gaps in visa regulations and by being more aware of the dangers of commercialization, governments and universities could spare international students the risks of being misled and (worse) the risk of legal repercussions.