• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


The missing points in the agent debate

By using agents we are saying, in effect, faced with a challenge, turn to someone who can provide you with an easy answer.

September 7, 2014

In a recent tribute to agents, Helen Obaje, professional development manager for higher education agents at the British Council, suggests that relying on agents is comparable to turning to a plumber to install a tap rather than do it herself.  I have some difficulty with the metaphor.  The tap on my sink has little impact on my future life.  Nor is there any hint of competing interests when a plumber is consulted—the decisions to be made are relatively simple and straightforward, and the plumber is not working for the faucet company. Turning to an agent is a different matter entirely.

The motivations for working with agents are clear:

For universities in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States:

They want full-paying international students.  There is ever-increasing competition for these students.  University administrators assert that they do not have adequate resources—budget or personnel—to achieve their international enrollment objectives.

For students: 

The choices and available information are overwhelming.  They lack knowledge of different education systems, admissions requirements and processes.  They need guidance.

Point #1: The easiest solution isn’t always the best solution.  By using agents we are saying, in effect, faced with a challenge turn to someone who can provide you with an easy answer—good for plumbing problems but perhaps not as useful for more significant decisions.  Ironically, “buying” solutions seems antithetical to academic culture.  There are many alternatives, albeit not as quick or easy to implement.

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC ) is trying to elaborate on the decision taken last year to “soften” the organization’s position on agents.  The new language being considered would insist that institutions are accountable for the behavior of agents working on their behalf, insure transparency by obliging institutions to post that it uses agents on its website, and a few other ambiguous requirements.

Point #2: Insisting that universities be more transparent about their employment of agents doesn’t necessarily make the relationship clear to students. Disclosure about contracts with agents on a university’s website does not necessarily reach the student. Preliminary research done by Rahul Choudaha indicates that students are not always aware that the agent they are working with (and may be paying) may be receiving a commission from the university that is being recommended.

Certainly there are agents who are sincere in their efforts to get to know a student well and research his or her best opportunities abroad.  Yet, the concept of third party intermediaries is riddled with opportunities for fraud, deception and (most likely) poor quality service.  Indeed, anecdotal evidence shows that there is fraud, deception and poor quality service.  The best results occur in environments where incentives and rewards align with values.  The “agent industry” relies on individuals choosing to be responsible and ethical while the incentives and rewards support a range of behaviors. 

Point #3: The incentive (and reward) for agents is to place students at an institution that will pay him or her a commission.  This in no way protects the student or insures that the placement (even if adequate) is the best option for his or her individual capabilities or goals. 

Who are these agents anyway?  To the best of my knowledge, they are self-appointed “experts” who are, in fact, entrepreneurs.  There is no particular profile required to qualify to be an agent.  These individuals may or may not be educators, may or may not be trained in counseling, may or may not have extensive or adequate knowledge of higher education.  Most of the “certification” of agents seems to focus more on process than the people involved.

Point #4:  Universities and students are placing a lot of trust in people of undetermined qualifications.

Students are particularly vulnerable in this equation of university-agent-student. One can only hope that universities think long and hard about why they want international students, what they offer international students who enroll, and the best way to build international networks in order to recruit the most appropriate students who will be well-served by the experiences they offer on their campuses.  And perhaps, as a result of that reflection, universities might be dissuaded from pursuing “the easiest solution” and find better ways of reaching out to potential candidates for admission.   


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