The Use of Agents is Widespread but Remains Controversial

Using agents for international recruiting is a well-established key for opening markets in several regions of the world―and many nations’ universities use them. But it remains controversial in the United States, despite some recent incremental shifts in attitudes.

Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Canada are among the countries that have adopted the sometimes controversial practice so they can thrive in the increasingly competitive market for overseas students; China has long relied on agents to open the doors of Western higher education to applicants. Education leaders in these nations acknowledge the downsides of using agents—dishonest applications, for instance, or students who are poor fits for schools—but they also say the practice, which some U.S. schools have adopted, can be improved with regulation and certification programs.

“In the UK, the use of agents is something not all are happy with, but they have to live with,” said Kevin van Cauter, higher education adviser for the British Council. “There are problems dealing with some agents…that’s quite clear. But in the end, if you want to penetrate some of these markets, using agents is sometimes the only way you can do it. It’s the most cost-effective way. It’s just not economically feasible to have a presence in all these countries to recruit huge numbers [of students].”

A May 2013 report from the United States’ National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), Report of the Commission on International Recruitment,1 reopened this debate domestically by calling on the association to doaway with a prohibition against using agents at U.S. schools. The report’s authors wrote that commission-based recruitment is acceptable but equivocated with this language, “While a majority of members maintain concerns with commissioned-based recruitment, the commission reached consensus to recommend that the association revise its mandatory practices…to specify that, while not encouraged, the ban on commission-based recruitment will be considered as a ‘best practice’ in the area of international recruitment.”

The final report will be forwarded to the NACAC Board of Directors. If the board adopts the recommendations, any changes made to the association’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice based on the commission’s recommendations must be approved by members via the NACAC Assembly at the NACAC National Conference in Toronto this September. NACAC first convened the commission on International Student Recruitment in March 2011 to address “the long-running controversy over the use of commissioned agents to recruit international students.” The commission noted that while there are institutions and organizations that appear to use such agents responsibly and demonstrably for the good of the students they serve, many may not be fully aware of the potential legislative, accreditation-related, and potentially punitive risks they incur by too broadly and uncritically using incentive-based agency to recruit and enroll international students.

This is an abridged adaptation of the article “Agent Provocative” Dana Wilkie in the International Enrollment Supplement, which was published with the September/October 2013 issue of International Educator magazine.

1Report of the Commission on International Student Recruitment to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, May 2013.