There is consensus among competing agents and advisors that more needs to be done to control and protect the sector from dishonest operating which they say largely exists in the sub-agent network.
The PIE has previously reported on concerns around international education – particularly in private colleges in Canada “sold primarily” as a way to immigrate. More recently, Indian authorities arrested a travel agent accused of forging visa documents. Stakeholders warn that the problems are more widespread.
For many smaller, mom-and-pop, pop-up agencies – who veteran players say are often untrained and operate as immigration agents as well as education agents – are taking advantage of prospective international students.
Naveen Chopra, founder and chairman of the Board at TC Global, warned that the current situation is an “absolute mess”.
“It’s a serious mess, from document fraud to misleading students to financial fraud,” he said.
Some dishonest players cheating the system can charge 25-30 Lakhs (approx. US$30-36k) for British visas, 20-25 Lakhs (US$25-30k) for Australian visas and anywhere between 30-40 Lakhs (US$36-48k) for US visas.
“The people [offering these services] are more interested in the money that they earn from students, they are not really interested in the money they can earn from the universities, the commissions,” Chopra said.
Others The PIE spoke with told of packages on offer being sold like holiday packages where agents will provide all documents for a fee.
“The fraud needs to stop”
“Is it fair that some kids have paid 20 lakhs or something to somebody who has taken his money and then their visa is rejected because it’s all fake whether it’s the documentation, their addresses, their loans. Obviously that is not correct, so therefore, they are going to suffer, and that’s very sad,” Natasha Chopra, director at TC Global, added.
Many spoke of the need to root out unscrupulous players that are causing reputational damage and are a threat to students.
Diwakar Chandiok, vice president for recruitment in South Asia for INTO University Partnerships, noted that regulation “is good for any industry”.
“This is proving the easiest job to start, you don’t need any training,” he said. INTO works significantly B2B with agents in the region, he explained.
The Indian states of Punjab and Haryana have been under scrutiny in recent months after Australian institutions suspended recruitment due to increased visa refusals.
“Like every state, Punjab has a share of very good students, but you have a lot of students focusing on immigration and looking for opportunities to settle down. It’s important to agents and students personally,” Chandiok said.
“The fraud needs to stop.
“If you reach out to the right agency, they can be a lifeline for the industry. One has to be careful with whom one works with. INTO really empowers us to work with the right agents that will best support students.”
Aggregator platform ApplyBoard has blacklisted a “good” number of agents who had been operating suspiciously. A spokesperson also suggested that the rise in the tech can detect fraud effectively.
Lakshmi Iyer from SI-UK told The PIE of an increase in fraud in academic documents, with duplicitous players becoming more savvy and finding new ways to cheat the system.
“Some regulation has to be there, but not too much,” she said, adding that it is not an issue that is unique only to India – the duty of care for students should be the same worldwide.
“We put checks and balances on ourselves and we choke our pipeline before [fraudsters] even start… We are not looking for short-term gains and our entire thing is based on reputation. We have a 98% visa acceptance rate. Hanging on to that requires us to make certain sacrifices knowingly, but for the right reasons…
“India is a net exporter of students. We have to be mindful of our reputation. We could aim to be exporter of good students.”
TC Global has identified scams in the use of fake CAS numbers and has been approached by prospective students that have been victims of loan sharks.
While typically regions such as Punjab and Haryana have been hotspots for people wanting to leave the country, fraud is happening across the country.
For IDP Education, which employs some 3,000 individuals across India with 73 offices in 64 cities, its reputation means that it does not attract non-genuine students, according to Piyush Kumar, the company’s regional director for South Asia and Mauritius.
“Typically you see that most of these small time mom and pop stores also double up as immigration agents,” he told The PIE.
“This is where the problem starts because these people even go to the extent of faking documents, manufacturing documents, and they obviously charge their customers a lot in assisting them in doing all this stuff. So I would definitely not deny that there is a problem here.”
Kumar, with IDP boasting high visa approvals such as SI-UK and TC Global, suggested that wider transparency around visa approval rates could help students to choose reliable agents.
A proposal from the Department of Home Affairs in Australia previously indicated that agents’ visa performance would be published online.
“The moment you make this information public, the students can access that information and then they will not go to those agents who have poor performance, who don’t have a good track record. At least you will prevent genuine students from getting misguided,” he said.
“The students will have authenticated data which they can rely upon to choose who do they want to go with.
“Somehow, the proposal got shunted.”
“It is not possible to actually go and validate or verify the processes of so many agents”
Additionally, universities need to be able to verify both their agents and students.
“There are many universities who work with hundreds of agents. It is not possible to actually go and validate or verify the processes of so many agents… how is that university ensuring that hundreds of these agents with whom they work, they have very stringent processes, checks and balances in place?” he asked.
Institutions and agents should also be following the know your customer guideline, he continued.
“For the Indian banking sector, the regulators very clearly say if you’re going to open a bank account of a particular person, you need to know the customer well so there are certain documentations, there is certain meetings which are required,” he explained.
“So as a university, if I am accepting applications from a particular agent, I should insist that the agent has met that student, knows that student, has verified their documents.”