An alarming story from India  illustrates the continuing and unending problems monitoring the activities of agents and recruiters working in developing countries for colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere. The head of the largest international student recruitment company in the Indian state of Punjab was recently arrested on a multiplicity of charges, including embezzlement (of more than $1 million) and forgery. The company involved, Oceanic Consultants (currently worth more than USD $160 million), has been a major force in the Punjab in placing students in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere as well as working in the immigration area, and providing information about overseas higher education. Oceanic Consultants is accredited by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC).
Although the charges are not related to the company’s student placement services, the scandal does throw into question whether Oceanic Consultants can be trusted to conduct activities ethically. While the disposition of this case is not clear, it has been covered widely in the Indian media. [The company did not respond to e-mail messages seeking information about the status of the case, but officials have been quoted denying all charges.] The charges raise another ethical dilemma — should AIRC alert universities that rely its certification that these charges against Oceanic's CEO are pending and should AIRC temporarily withdraw certification while it re-reviews Oceanic’s business practices?
Foreign study problems are of considerable interest in India since so many students go abroad to study. Recent anti-foreigner violence against Indian students in Australia has increased concern. Of course, Indian families want the reassurance that students will be served and placed by responsible and ethical services.
The Oceanic story, one of many reported recently, demonstrates once again the challenges of certifying agencies in the recruitment/agent business. There are, it seems, two issues at play here. One is the impossibility of policing the “bad actors” in this field. AIRC asserts that its self-regulatory mechanisms can do the job. This strains credulity — how can any organization, especially one with no teeth or legal authority, maintain standards in an industry that is already out of control. There are no doubt agents who are trying to provide good service to both students and the academic institutions that pay them. But it is very clear that significant numbers in major countries as India and China, are engaged in nefarious activities that serve neither the best interests of students nor the higher education community.
The second issue is whether the “agent/recruiter” industry itself can enforce standards—there is a long history of the failure of self-regulation, from the recent financial crisis to environmental protection. Self-regulation is all the more complicated by the fact that agents and recruiters work internationally, and many operate in places where shady practices and outright corruption are endemic.
Even if probity and high standards were the norm in an industry that is more like the “Wild West” than an academic enterprise, a few “rotten apples” have the potential of bringing significant disrepute and bad publicity to universities that may have the best of intentions but lack the ability to engage in “due diligence” in Punjab or Malawi. Many universities risk dangerous affiliations (made more attractive by AIRC accreditation) with groups like Oceanic. In this new world order, it is caveat emptor for everyone!
What is the answer? It is simple. Universities should encourage prospective students to do their own research; they should pursue as much direct contact as possible, something that technology has made simpler and more affordable than ever; they should mobilize their own resources such as current foreign students and foreign alumni. Universities should avoid relationships that charge them commission per head—the incentives motivate the wrong kind of recruitment. Rather, universities should do their own research to identify advising centers (private and non-profit) that exist only to provide services to student clients and build relationships with those that are professional and ethical.