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Exeter and York pay £9m to agents in 2021/22 as UK commissions boom

Universities in the UK are increasingly relying on international education agents to recruit students from overseas, with some institutions spending upwards of £9 million on agent commission in the 2021/22 academic year.

For each of the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years, Exeter paid agents £5m, but in 2021/22, payments reached £9m. Photo: iStock

Other institutions have reduced the number of formal agreements with agents

In 2021, the University of Exeter paid education agents £9m to recruit 1,800 postgraduate and 750 undergraduate students. Five years previous, agents had netted £2.5m when recruiting 765 PG and 335 UG students.

The University of York – while it did not share how many students had been recruited via agents in the last five years – has also seen a similar growth in commission payments.

In 2017/18, it paid agents £2.42m in commission and five years later, payments reached £9.07m.

Other institutions that have seen similar booms in commission payments to agents include Kingston University, which leaped from £1.4m in 2017/18 to £7.3m in 2021/22, and Cranfield, which jumped from £1.1m for PG recruitment in 2017/18 to £3.7m in 2021/22.

“Commission rates can take months, if not years to negotiate”

The University for the Creative Arts saw a 750% increase in payments of commission between 2016/17 and 2020/21, starting at £373,191.42 reaching £3.1m to recruit 614 postgraduate taught and 330 UG students in 2020/21.

Leeds Beckett also started at a lower base five years previous, paying £726,953 in commission, which has grown to £5.1m in the last academic year when 1,695 students arrived via agents. It is a similar picture for Wrexham Glyndwr University, where agents earned a total of £23,500 in commission in 2017/18 – in 2021/22, payments hit £2.4m.

The data – obtained by The PIE through FOIs – shows that the university in North Wales has utilised agents to recruit more PG international students. In 2017, it enrolled five students through agents, but by 2022 this had leaped to eight undergraduate students and 547 PGs.

While many universities declined to share total commission paid along with numbers of students recruited, Durham University detailed that in 2017/18, agents earned £2.5m recruiting 244 undergraduate and 1,086 postgraduate taught students.

Five years later, this had grown to £4.5m for 411 undergrads and 1,206 postgraduate students.

The UK hosted 605,130 international students in the 2020/21 academic year, famously hitting its 600,000 target a decade earlier than anticipated. The FOIs reveal how agents have contributed to reaching the target early.

The University of Warwick for example said that if it were to disclose numbers and financial remuneration, other parties would be able to calculate commission rates.

“Commission rates can take months, if not years to negotiate and they vary between our agents, in the same way agents will vary rates for different higher education clients,” the university said. However, it did share a list of agents it works with.

There are concerns from some in the UK about commission rates spiralling away from the ‘standard’ 10% commission rates, with some suggesting large recruiting agents may be paid 20%+ by universities. The PIE has been unable to verify exact commission rates with universities.

But calculations suggest that in 2021/22 Exeter paid out an average of £3,529 per student, Kingston £3,055, Durham £2,819 and Kent £1,659. However, in reality actual commission rates vary depending on course cost, type, level and individual agreements with agents.

Some have raised worries that universities are becoming overly reliant on agents to recruit students, as well as issues around transparency.

Of the 129 universities The PIE requested data from, 19 refused to share any information, declining even to say how many agent partners they have worked with in the past five years.

Those refusing to share any data included Universities of Liverpool, Essex, Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham, among others. In Australia, data is freely available on the Australian Department for Education website.

However, the data indicated growth in agent partnerships with many UK universities over the past half a decade.

Agent agreement growth

The PIE found that the University of Creative Arts holds the most, with 365 agreements in place this year. This was followed by South Wales with 362 in 2021, DMU with 320, Cardiff Met 273 in the same year, and Arts University Bournemouth with 267 in 2022.

However, growth in agency partnerships is not the case for all institutions. York St John for example saw growth in formal agreements with agents from 2018 up until 2020/21 when it had 148 partnerships in place. That year agents brought in 48 undergrads and 680 postgrads. However, in 2021/22, the institution had only 14 agreements and yet increased student numbers coming through agents, increasing to 85 undergrads and 705 postgrads.

Other institutions that have reduced the number of formal agreements with agents include: Derby which dropped from 133 agreements in 2018 to 104 in 2022; Solent reduced its partnership from 115 in 2017 to 92 in 2022; Suffolk went from 45 in 2018 to 38 in 2021; and Bradford lowers its agent agreements to 282 in 2022 from 303 in 2019.

Robert Gordon University was one institution that has a similar number of agreements – 113 – in 2021 as in 2017, when it had 114. Similarly, Reading went from 163 to 164, UEA from 156 to 154 and Edinburgh 45 to 47 over five years.

BUILA’s 2021 survey found that of 105 respondents at UK higher education institutions, all were using at least one education agent, with some using up to 400.

Approximately half of the HEIs’ international students are placed by an agent, BUILA’s research previously found.

The data collected by The PIE shows the extent that some institutions are relying on agents to enrol students.

UAL for example has seen the ratio of international students come via agents leap from 26% for UG and 41% for PG in 2017/18 to 46% and 63% in 2021/22, respectively.

“We will not pay anyone commission for sending us a student, nor endorse the services they provide”

University of West Scotland has seen the ratio of international students enrolling via agents increase from 25% in the 2017/18 academic year, to 87% in 2021/22. Kingston increased to 76% of international students coming through agents, up from 57% in 2017/18.

Utilising agents for PG recruitment

As well as Wrexham Glyndwr, the PIE also identified other universities that have seen big growth in postgraduate enrolments via agents. In 2019, the UK government said it would reinstate post-study work rights through the Graduate route for graduates of the 2020/21 academic year, which may be one reason for the growth in PG enrolments.

Six institutions – Oxford, Imperial, Cambridge, University of Wales, UHI – West Highland and the Open University – said that they do not use agents to recruit international students.

Imperial shared its policy on international education agents, which states that the institution “will not pay anyone commission for sending us a student, nor endorse the services they provide”.

The university “unequivocally disapprove[s] of” any agents claiming to be operating on its behalf or a ‘special relationship’ with Imperial, or charges students for applications on the grounds that they will have a better chance of getting into Imperial College London through them than if the student had applied directly.

Plymouth Marjon University noted that it entered its first two formal agreements with agents in the current calendar year, but no students had yet been recruited.

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