Before coming to the UK, students must first show they have enough money to pay for their courses and support themselves while they are studying.
Now agents may be lending money to students or helping broker loans so they can show UK immigration authorities they have the requisite funds in their accounts. When the student receives their visa, they may return the money to the agent.
Pieter Funnekotter, CEO of Intake Education, said that he came across the practice when he was on a trip in Nigeria meeting with team members last November.
“One of the things that became quite clear was that there are individuals who have seen an opportunity in Nigeria to find ways around the visa system to enrol students by lending money through a process called packaging.
“That was, something that we’re nervous about, that students will be showing up without funds and without the means to pay their tuition fees or housing.”
Funnekotter said that he hopes to increase awareness of the practice to ensure that students have funds in place before they reach the country.
“It’s not good for the students, it’s not good for the universities, it’s not good for the UK,” he added.
Intake’s regional manager for Nigeria, Bukky Awofisayo said that practice was fairly widespread.
“It’s very open now where private financial institutions of all people are offering an opportunity for students to borrow money, to be able to secure their proof of funds as evidence to apply for a study visa,” she said.
Awofisayo said that three out of every 10 calls at Intake’s Nigeria Office are from students who want help with funds.
The PIE found examples online of numerous Nigerian agents offering to provide assistance around financial requirements so they can show they have enough money for the proof of funds part of their visa applications.
Many of these agents were advertising the service on social media as prospective students navigate the financial requirements needed. It is not clear what such services entail.
Whether students who don’t have adequate robust funding are actually able to dupe UKVI officials and enter the UK is uncertain, and the Home Office told The PIE that it has “robust” measures in place to counter fraud.
“Our points-based immigration system is focused on talent and skills and makes it much easier for the brightest and best to live and study in the UK,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
“We have robust measures in place to prevent abuse of the student visa application process, including training for our decision makers on detecting forgeries and the ability to interview applicants to help question their credibility and intentions.
“Anyone who has used false documents, misrepresented their personal circumstances or practiced deception by any other means will have their application refused and may face a ban on making further applications for up to 10 years,” they added.
Visa decisions are made on each application’s own merits and Home Office decision makers have the option to request further information and assess the authenticity of documents submitted if required. All applications must meet the ‘genuine student’ requirement set out in caseworker guidance.
Credibility interviews provide caseworkers with the power to ask applicants why they have chosen a specific course or institution and how they intend to fund their studies in the UK, it added.
“The use of agents and other third parties is common place around the world and provides an important function for the education sector,” the Home Office spokesperson said.
“We are continuing to work with both institutions and study sector representatives such as Universities UK, British Universities’ International Liaison Association and the UK Council for International Student Affairs to raise awareness and increase prevention of fraudulent practices.
“We are also continuing to work with institutions to protect the integrity of the immigration system by improving recruitment practices as well as working with the study sector to remove unscrupulous agents from the market and ensure only genuine students are given the opportunity to study in the UK.”
However, Intake’s Funnekotter told The PIE that he was worried an increase that the fraudulent activities of rogue agents in Nigeria could put pressure on legitimate agents.
“Our fear is that if refusal rates go up UKVI in time will have a serious clampdown, which will have a negative impact on the sector,” said Funnekotter.
Charley Robinson, head of global mobility at Universities UK International told The PIE that education agents play an important part in the student recruitment process, not only from a university perspective, but also for students.
“The majority of education agents that universities work with are trusted and valuable partners. The sector has been working with the Home Office to share information, ensuring quality and compliance in this area,” Robinson said.
Increase in applications accepted from Nigeria
In November 2021 the UK government released data that showed a steep rise in the number of study permits granted to Nigerian students.
The rate of approved study visas for the year ending 2021, rose 347% to 36,783 in 2021 and 386% in the past two years. The rise coincided with the introduction of the UK’s new graduate route.
“Any such rapid market expansion or innovation in the recruitment landscape requires awareness from universities”
UUKi’s Robinson acknowledged that with increased numbers there was an increased risk of fraud and said that universities would have to put in necessary resources to tackle the issue.
“Following work by the UK government and sector to keep the UK competitive, this year has seen a large and welcome rise in applications to the UK from Nigeria,” she told The PIE.
“Any such rapid market expansion or innovation in the recruitment landscape requires awareness from universities, for example of how agencies and individuals may present themselves to students, how quickly new staff need to be trained and the quality of any such training and how to assure this.”
The function of aggregators
One Nigerian agent who wished to be kept anonymous said a key part of keeping fraud down was to look at the role that education agent aggregators play in the recruitment of Nigerian students.
The agent told The PIE that aggregators are not properly vetting their sub-agents and are signing up agents who then go on to commit fraud.
“You have a situation where you have students going to road-side agents who say ‘look, I can do what those other guys are doing- you just need to pay me x amount of money’. They do not offer proper assistance to the student,” the agent told The PIE.
Aggregators have consistently defended their vetting procedures for their agent partners.
UUKi’s Robinson said that her organisation has been working in partnership with UKCISA and BUILA on the development of the agent quality framework, in particular on the development of a Good Practice Guide for providers.
“This guide will provide advice on appointing, contracting and managing international recruitment agents,” she said.
“It documents the substantial best practice that there is in the sector. It includes recommendations that apply to aggregators and sub-agents. This work will be kept under review to ensure it remains relevant to the current recruitment landscape.”