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‘Fraudulent practice exists’ but need for agents is real: OBHE

There is “no question that suspect and outright fraudulent practice exists” among some agents, but there is a need for education agents in international education, a report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) has concluded. The report also calls for a greater emphasis on hard data in framing the agent debate.

Graph showing the proportion of agents with certification from one of six regulatory bodies - the report draws on i-graduate research,

“To conclude that 'all agents are bad' is akin to saying that the widespread phenomenon of diploma mills means that all universities are bad”

Agents are a necessary response to market conditions and the need for education agencies is “real, growing and legitimate” as the market evolves, despite an inevitable level of “substandard practice and fraud”,  states The agent question: insights from students, universities and agents.

The report states that the need for education agencies is “real, growing and legitimate” as the market evolves

“To conclude that therefore ‘all agents are bad’ or that agents should be abolished is akin to saying that the widespread phenomenon of diploma mills means that all universities are bad and should be abolished,” the report explains.

The simultaneous widespread use of agents and fierce opposition to agent use was a key impetus for the report, which calls for a more evidence-based approach to the agent debate.

The think tank’s conclusion is that while poor practices exist – such as those described in a summary from OACAC including “forged recommendation letters, fraudulent transcripts, phantom test-takers, even faked Skype interviews” – it is difficult to tell how commonplace such practices are and that a reliance on such anecdotal evidence weakens the agent debate.

OBHE carried out a survey of 181 education institutions for the report as well as drawing on data from i-graduate’s Agent Barometer and International Student Barometer.

It found that as of autumn 2012, the “vast majority” of respondent institutions used education agents, including all those in Australia and New Zealand, “almost all” Dutch and Malaysian institutions and 80-90% of institutions across Canada and the UK.

Of the 56 US institutions surveyed, 82% worked with education agents and had done for an average of six years, compared with a 17-year-long average among Australian universities, indicating a changing recruitment landscape in the US.

The figures are broadly consistent with previous research, apart from showing proportionally high agent use in US universities compared to previous research, which it suggests is due to an over-representation of members of AIRC in the report, which are all engaged with education agencies and hence the reason for their membership.

“The industry needs to step fully into the light”

OBHE’s research also found “no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction” surrounding agent use among students or educators.

Another key conclusion of the report is that evolving regulation will help to minimise the scope for bad practice.

It notes that around two-thirds of agents who took part in the Agent Barometer survey are accredited or certified by AIRC, the British Council, ICEF, the Canada Course for Education Agents, New Zealand’s ‘Specialist Agents’ or Australia’s ‘Qualified Education Agent Counsellors’.

“The industry needs to step fully into the light,” it concludes. “As the industry adage goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

The report has been welcomed by a number of international education bodies, including the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), which aided in OBHE’s research.

“Research such as the OBHE’s is helpful in understanding the role of agents and in clarifying the positive and negative aspects of working with them,” Jennifer Humphries, CBIE’s Vice-President for Membership, Public Policy and Communications, told The PIE News.

AIRC’s Executive Director, John Deupree, commented: “AIRC welcomes the OBHE report which aligns with our members’ belief that international recruitment agencies offer valued and legitimate services to students and institutions.”

However, he added that the report “falls short” in its failure to distinguish between AIRC’s rigorous agent accreditation process and self regulatory guidelines or training courses.

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