MIAMI – A discussion on transparency in university-agent relationships at the American International Recruitment Council annual conference on Saturday came to few clear conclusions, but it did raise a number of issues that will likely be on the table as higher education associations try to craft guidelines for the ethical use of agents in the months ahead.
The landscape for the use of agents in international student recruitment has changed. In amending its Statement of Principles of Good Practice in September , the National Association for College Admission Counseling reversed its longtime ban on the use of commissioned agents in international recruiting, opting to permit the practice with the stipulation that member institutions ensure accountability, integrity and transparency.
A report by a commission appointed by NACAC  to study the issue of incentive-based recruitment gives some clue as to what transparency could look like: for example, the commission recommended that institutions disclose their arrangements with third-party agents to prospective students and families and that the terms of transactions between agents, institutions and families be clear and published. However, it’s been left to NACAC’s various committees to hammer out how these recommendations regarding transparency might be codified as standards.
While they’re working on that, “We’d like to get ahead of the curve on this issue,” said Norman Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State University and a member of AIRC’s board. “NACAC has said institutions can use agents but you have to do it with integrity, transparency, and accountability: they’re going to be trying to figure out what transparency really means, other people are going to try to figure out what that means. We’d like to have AIRC have the leading role in the process of sorting this out.”
The question of how AIRC – an association of 252 member institutions – can maintain its relevance and help define the terms of the discussion over agents in the aftermath of the NACAC decision was a leitmotif at last week’s conference .The association, which formed in 2008, has developed a set of standards against which it certifies agents via a process akin to accreditation. Until this year's shift by NACAC, the many colleges that started using commission-based agents regardless of that association's policy could point to the AIRC certification process to justify their work with various agents. But that could change if NACAC standards become the new measure embraced by colleges.
Saturday’s discussion focused largely on what agents should publicly disclose and how: notably, a survey released by World Education Services in October  found that just 13 percent of students who worked with educational agents knew whether the agent received a commission from the university. Participants in the discussion pointed out that AIRC standards require member agencies to make certain information available for students – such as a schedule of fees and refund policies – but they aren’t required to post those on their website, for example.
By and large there seemed to be agreement regarding the value of posting a full list of the institutions that an agent contracts with (and thereby receives a commission from) on the website. That way a student knows which universities an agent is "selling" so to speak, and can judge an agent's recommendation to apply to College A (on the list) and not College B (not on the list). However, agents did speak to some competitive concerns in this regard – e.g., that students who use their list might circumvent them and apply directly to the college (costing the agent business) or that their competitors could use the list as road map for poaching the agent’s university clients.
The question of whether the amount of the commission to be collected by the agent should also be disclosed to the student was discussed only briefly. Some argue that it is important for students to know whether an agent receives, say, a $5,000 commission if it sends a student to University X versus a $2,500 commission if it sends someone to University Y. How else can a student detect whether he’s being steered to University X with his interests in mind, or that of his agent? But one agent who spoke on Saturday vehemently rejected the idea of disclosing the commission he receives from each individual client. When you buy a car, he said, the salesman doesn’t tell you that he’s getting $5,000 in commission.
The key word here, Peterson said, is “proprietary”: “Are there dimensions of our operations which we should consider to be proprietary information that agencies should not be obligated to disclose?”
“We have to think about transparency for who,” said Mitch Leventhal, the vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York System. “The agents to some extent by going through AIRC certification have opened up their business operations in a very significant way to external parties. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to put all of it on the web or that they’re expected to do it, but it means they’ve been transparent with the AIRC certification board about a whole range of their activities, financial and otherwise.”
Leventhal said he thinks the bigger area of concern is that of transparency on the university’s part. The State University of New York System lists the agents it works with on its website , but this is atypical among U.S. universities at this point. In Australia, the law requires universities to list their contracted agents on their website.
“I continue to be much more disturbed by the fact that hundreds of U.S. institutions are working with agents but are completely non-transparent about that. I think that is the issue which is an undercurrent in this entire debate that we’ve just concluded nationally,” Leventhal said.
“I really think we need to push hard on getting these to disclose. Once it’s transparently disclosed then they have to address these other issues of are they doing it according to the standards that are being established in the industry – by NACAC and AIRC.”