By Helen Obaje

11 June 2014 - 14:40

'Good agents are important in looking after the interests of both the students and the universities.' Photo of University of the Arts, London, by Ed Webster under Creative Commons licence.
'Good agents are important in looking after the interests of both the students and the universities.' Photo ©

Ed Webster, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Why do students and universities use agents and what regulations are in place? The British Council’s Helen Obaje explains before her appearance on a panel at the International Teachers and Advisers Conference on 12-13 June.

What role do agents play in higher education, and why are they needed?

Studying abroad is a massive investment for students and their families. They look for advice and guidance from friends, family and teachers, but also seek expert help from professional education advisers and counsellors. Agents can guide students through the application process and into the institution that will best suit their specific needs. The demand for agent services is student-led, and agents will typically offer the following services: education counselling, arranging language tests, preparing applications to institutions, pre-departure briefings, visa and immigration advice, and help with flights and accommodation.

Good agents look after the interests of both the students and the universities. They shine a positive light on UK culture and enable the recruitment of suitable applicants. Agents also help universities promote their brand and ethos, and provide access to students in countries that are otherwise difficult to recruit from.

This may be a student’s first time away from home, and parents understandably have concerns. Agents can reassure them about student support mechanisms, and provide advice on life in the UK, accommodation, and accurate course and application information, so that students are well prepared for when they take up their studies. A student’s relationship with the agent does not end after they arrive in the UK. Students will contact the agent if they want to switch course or have complaints.

Why is the use of agents growing so much?

The rise in number of agents is linked to the increase in students seeking an international education. Despite growing recognition of the value of a UK higher education, UK institutions face increased competition from providers in other English-speaking countries: USA, Australia, and New Zealand especially, but also Canada. They offer good higher education, and provide opportunities for students to switch their status through work-study visas. There is also competition from the growth and development of higher education institutions in countries such as China and Malaysia. Some of these institutions are extremely reputable and many offer international programmes in English.

In this complex market, students need help finding the most appropriate course. There is also recognition from universities that a comprehensive agents strategy will bring them hard-working students who are passionate about their subject matter and contribute to their courses. Over 92 per cent of UK institutions work with agents. A forthcoming report from OBHE (Observatory on Borderless Education) into student choices highlights that students have increasingly chosen to work with agents to help them find the right course. These numbers increased from ten per cent in 2007 to 28 per cent in 2013. The report also shows that in some countries the use of agents is very high: China 45 per cent, India 43 per cent and Nigeria 30 per cent. Overall this represents 30 per cent of all international non-EU students enrolled on UK higher education courses. For most universities, this is the most cost-effective way of recruiting.

What regulations are in place to ensure the interests of students are protected?

Institutions have the responsibility for contracting and managing their agents and ensuring they follow the UK institution’s published policies and codes of practice relating to international students. Complaints can be dealt with under the relevant UK codes that govern the activities of UK institutions, including The Bribery Act and Data Protection legislation.

  • The QAA (The Quality Assurance Agency) has issued guidance to UK higher education institutions on how they work with agents. It asks them to provide due diligence, to support and train their agents, and to actively manage these relationships as part of its duty to students. It also asks institutions to seek feedback from students, and universities have different ways of doing this.
  • Universities also have a number of requirements they must meet under visa and immigration legislation, to enable them to maintain the Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) Status. Using unethical agents who recruit students who disappear after enrolment would put their HTS status at risk.
  • The British Council offers professional development which incorporates an internationally agreed code of professional standards and ethics (see below).
  • The QAA also advises institutions to incorporate the British Council Code of Ethics into their contracts with agents.
  • In some countries, agents have formed regional and country associations and have codes of practice and business standards that their members must adhere to.
  • Universities contract and manage their agents in a number of ways: some have a tier system, some offer incentives to their best performing agents, but all are keen to ensure that agents know as much as possible about the institutions and the wider student support systems. This covers everything from using the library to student work experience and volunteering options.
  • UKCISA  (UK Council for International Student Affairs) also has a code of ethics similar to the British Council’s, which institutions can use.

How does the British Council try to ensure accountability and integrity when training agents?

Universities govern their relationships with individual agents through legal contracts which set out the terms of agreement. The aim of the British Council’s strategy is to increase the number, effectiveness and quality of agents working on behalf of UK providers in all relevant sectors. This is achieved primarily through the British Council’s Agent Training and Continuing Professional Development Programmes.

When signing up to training, agents have to accept the code of conduct as part of the registration process. They also have to meet the eligibility criteria, one of which involves providing references from two institutions on the HTS register. The Advanced Agent Training Certificate, in particular, has a focus on ethical and professional behaviour. It was developed in line with the seven principles of the London Statement, which tackles the main risks in working with agents, and sets out an agenda to manage these through a collaborative, global approach by the signatory countries: Australia, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

The agents and institutions themselves are responsible for ensuring adherence to the good practice guide and dealing with complaints. The British Council takes very seriously its responsibilities to institutions. If we receive a complaint that an agent is not adhering to the code of conduct, we investigate it and, if necessary, remove them from the global list, an online, searchable database of British Council-certified agents.

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