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International Student Recruitment: Who Regulates the Agents?

Students are drawn to agents to help understand the complexities of the college enrollment process while schools are drawn to agents to help understand the complexities of foreign markets. Because both students and their schools seek advice and assistance in connecting with each other; the agent becomes a middleman. There is an estimated 10,000 of these agents around the world ranging in size from one to many hundreds of employees, each serving as a middleman.

Agents Operate under Local License

While agents operate overseas and serve colleges and universities in multiple countries, there is a lack of unified standards and regulation of the industry. There is, however, a host of local laws. In China, for example, each agent must be licensed, though they only grant 400 of these top-level licenses. Newcomers to the field must operate under a sub-license. Regulations in China extend further, requiring that any student who uses an agent must sign a nationally registered contract. There is only one contract per student, and these strictly enforced contracts detail the terms of the engagement and include a price for services. From a consumer standpoint, China’s regulations are perhaps the strongest in the world.

In numerous other countries, agents have to abide by local licensing and answer to local regulators regarding consumer complaints. An agent can sometimes be vague and difficult to define, as families often pay for services that prepare their child for consideration, while universities pay for services that help recruit desirable students. Sometimes described as “double dipping” or “taking two bites of the cherry,” representing both of these sides can be considered negative. While this issue may be clear to locals, it is very complex to outsiders.

Agents are Accountable to University Regulations

Destination countries also have a significant role in the regulation of the industry. Australia has long been the leader in this field. Through legislation under the ESOS Act (Education Services for Overseas Students) and subsequent regulation and revisions, Australia has sought to protect overseas students inbound on student visas, and has set out clear roles and responsibilities for education institutions wanting to teach foreign students. These laws make the universities fully accountable for the actions of their agents and provide harsh penalties on violation of their “National Code.” Though Australia’s system is not perfect and there have been well-publicized breakdowns in the regulation and enforcement of these laws, their education industry adapts, adjusts, and continues to move forward.

Caveat Emptor – Let the Buyers Beware

In the United States, where use of agents has only recently become widely accepted, efforts to regulate the industry have been voluntary. The university community established The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) to provide a set of best practice standards for recruiting foreign students. Through a detailed review process designed to improve professional practice, agents are certified as compliant. Families seeking advice on American Higher Education should look for AIRC certified agents.

Schools are encouraged to work only with AIRC certified agents, as they will create pressure to operate under admissions and enrollment standards that professional associations and accreditors in the United States have endorsed.

Transparency is the common thread in these attempts to guide the industry. The consumer should get what he or she sees, which is the primary intent of regulators worldwide and a continuing trend as demand for international education continues to grow. An estimated 3.5 million students currently study outside their home country. Though individual markets fluctuate in volume, the average growth rate worldwide has remained a fairly steady 5%. Regulation of the agents is one tactic to better protect the consumers of this product (education), and as we’ve seen in Australia, regulation of the schools is another.

Mark Shay is a business developer with a long history of success helping higher education institutions recruit students. In an illustrative career that has spanned three decades, Shay has served thousands of customers, ranging from individual faculty members and graduate deans, to university presidents and foreign governments. He is well known for balancing the non-commercial spirit of educators with the commercial realities of operating efficiently and effectively using technology to improve results. He founded StudyAbroad.com, GradSchools.com and has worked in leadership roles at two universities and IDP Education. He has recently started a consulting practice and is serving as an advisor to AAE. Mark is also the editor of ChinaTrend: Insights into the Higher Education market in China

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