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Agent perspectives: forced deferrals and refunds

As The PIE takes a closer look at agent perspectives in the higher education sector, we are focusing on the increasing number of forced deferrals and deposit refunds happening for students applying to study in the UK.

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Deposits at some universities can take as long as three months to process due to bureaucratic policies or lack of resources

Frustrated stakeholders have been expressing concerns about the recruitment forecasting of institutions after students had their applications rejected at the last minute ahead of the autumn intake this year.

Communications seen by The PIE from one university admissions team indicate that “a large number of students” had applied for 2022 and “a number of these students did not meet the university’s internal requirements for issuing a CAS”.

This is despite the fact that many of the applicants in question had already paid an advance deposit, passed a credibility interview or evidenced a secure English language certificate.

Some institutions have reportedly deferred students in their thousands, raising yet more concerns about ethical recruitment practices.

“It is very disappointing to be requesting student refunds given the time and effort we have put into recruitment for our institutional partners,” Vikas Muralidhara, founder and CEO of Uniabroad based in Bangalore, India, said.

“We are left standing with no results and the students are devastated”

“We are left standing with no results and the students are devastated, all while I see the same universities [who claim to be full] continuing to advertise courses on social media. We had 48 student refunds to request which were totally unexpected from our point of view.”

Predictive analysis of expected enrolments continues to be a problem for institutions as a result of the pandemic and a subsequent rise in demand distorting conversion metrics. Over-accepting deposits then deferring or refunding students at the last minute has become a tactic used by institutions who are suddenly predicting oversubscribed courses.

Prospective business studies student Saniya Saman explained the need for a prompt refund which she has now received.

“Since my September 2022 intake CAS was cancelled by the university, I had to move ahead with another university offer for January 2023. The refund was sent to me after a month [as I was concerned] and likewise a few other students [I know] have got their refunds now in November.

“I also requested my deposit to be refunded at the same exchange rate that I paid as I didn’t wish to incur anymore loses due to the university’s unfair delay. But sadly this point wasn’t considered by the university.”

Muralidhara explained that while Saniya’s case has been resolved, deposits at some universities can take as long as three months to process due to bureaucratic policies or lack of resources. An upfront payment of fees is often an essential requirement for these same institutions, to allow students to book a credibility interview and secure an unconditional offer and CAS number.

Speaking earlier in the year, Grace Dickinson, senior campaign manager at BridgeU and previously employed at a UK university, said unprecedented growth in interest in the UK has “exposed underlying issues with service delivery for international students”.

“Reports of some universities over-accepting deposits well beyond their CAS allowance as an example of this,” she said.

Social channels have highlighted the feeling on the ground among agents, particularly in India where demand is high.

Salil Bhatia, founder and director of AQG, India Educonsultancy, said “this is the right time for consultants who stand for student rights and work sincerely towards making the study abroad experience memorable, to join hands and create a platform where by we collectively can take stand against these unethical practices by universities and institutions.”

Dinesh Anand, co-founder and operations director at Vision International Educational Consultants echoed the same experience, saying “I’ve been a victim of the same. Around 100 deposits [paid] and 20-25 rejections [received] and around 10 cases forced [to be] deferred.”

A counsellor based in Mumbai, Khushi Mukh, messaged The PIE saying, “I am facing the same problem, my student lost one year because the university denied a CAS at the last stage and [my student’s] program of masters in psychology is only available for the fall intake. Please bring these issues to people’s attention.”

As agents work directly with students and families, they are often left struggling to explain a university decision to reject or defer the student. Managing student expectations is becoming an impossible task when even approved recruitment partners cannot predict the likelihood of acceptance when demand is high.

“Parents and students do not understand things that are beyond the control of the agents”

Varrtika Mudaliaar, founder at careers coaching service Penned Perfections, also voiced her support, saying study abroad agents “get a lot of criticism yet many things are not their fault at all”.

“Parents and students do not understand things that are beyond the control of the agents,” Mudaliaar added.

UCAS figures revealed that fewer British students had deferred their studies at undergraduate level compared to 2021, and that there had been a further 3% rise in international applications to the UK putting pressure on places. The applications service estimates that one million students will apply for a UK university each year by 2025.

Jenny Wilkinson, director of student recruitment and business development at London Metropolitan University commented, saying “as application numbers rise and capacity – both on courses and for CAS – is reached across the sector, there is an understandable need to defer applications”.

“However at London Met, we constantly monitor capacity and actively avoid requesting deposits from students until later in the application process, once all conditions are met and we know there is space, therefore reducing the volumes of refund requests and minimising the financial burden on students.”

The first Agent perspectives feature on institutional debt is available here.

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