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US: Agents, educators call for more due diligence after DHS sting

Stakeholders in the US on both sides of the school-agent relationship have reacted to the arrests of education counsellors in a sting operation carried out by the US government.

AIRC reminded its agency members to only work with certified education partners. Photo: web.archive.org

“Good and reputed institutions already cautiously vet the agencies that they work with through references, ICEF as well as AIRC"

Earlier this month, the US Department of Homeland Security charged 21 people for visa fraud. The counsellors reportedly helped approximately 1,076 foreign nationals stay in the US through a pay-to-stay scheme.

Speaking with The PIE News, educators, agents and accreditation bodies have said the arrests highlight the need for due diligence on both sides of the recruitment process.

“It highlights the shortcomings of existing approaches to quality control,” Eddie West, director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Three of the agents arrested for recruiting students to the bogus University of Northern New Jersey were ICEF-screened and, according to the organisation, had recently passed the obligatory bi-annual screening. They also each had at least four positive references provided by a number of well-known American institutions.

West commented that “in the vast majority of cases ICEF screenings work to effectively distinguish professional agents from unprofessional ones” but added, “that system is hardly foolproof.”

“This news bolsters the case that institutions need to conduct rigorous due diligence to avoid getting involved with dodgy agents in the first place”

Commenting on the ICEF-screened agents in the UNNJ case, West said the schools who provided references for them “aren’t exactly good judges of character”.

“That and/or their relationship with the agents must not have been very close for them to be in the dark about their other activities.

“This news bolsters the case that institutions need to conduct rigorous due diligence to avoid getting involved with dodgy agents in the first place,” he said.

Sushil Sukhwani, director of India-based Edwise International, was pleased to see the US authorities take action on the fraudulent activity.

“Acts of this nature malign the reputation of the US education system as well as of the professional relations that some institutions have with ethical education representatives worldwide,” he said.

“Good and reputed institutions already cautiously vet the agencies that they work with through references, ICEF as well as AIRC,” he said.

Sukhwani defended ICEF as well as the universities who provided references for the arrested agents. “I would like to say that they [the schools] too do reference checks but these fraudulent agents may not have had wrong dealings with those who referred them.”

Despite the negative press, Sukhwani said he didn’t think the events would impact the historically divisive topic of using education agents among US educators.

After the sting was brought to light, AIRC, the American International Recruitment Council, stressed to its agency members the importance of carrying out their own due diligence on education partners.

“We immediately reminded our agencies to only engage in contracts whose accreditation is recognised by the US Department of Education or Council on Higher Education Accreditation,” said Mike Finnell, executive director at AIRC.

AIRC’s quality standards oblige agencies to enter contracts with or places students at US educational institutions whose accreditation is recognised by the US Department of Education or Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

Finnell is also confident the arrests won’t affect the use of education agents in the US. “Recruiting students in partnership with an agency remains one of the appropriate recruitment methods US institutions may use in today’s market,” he said.

“They must realise that even if they are not engaging an education agent, the student is always going to take help of a counsellor or an agent”

West argued that agent accountability is ultimately left in the hands of institutions. “It’s the individual school, college, university or program that enrolls students with the help of a third party that needs to own responsibility – responsibility for steering clear of the charlatans of the world and thereby protecting the interests of legitimate students and preserving the integrity of their own reputation,” he said.

But according to Ravi Singh, managing director of Global Reach, an India-based agency, often credibility can’t be checked.

“Unlike the relationship of Australian and UK universities with their agents, the arrangement in USA is often fairly loose,” he said. “Agents working for the USA often are paid by the students and thus are more like agents of the students and not of the universities.”

Singh said he hopes the government’s action will drive more universities to accept agencies as a part of the recruitment process. “They must realise that even if they are not engaging an education agent, the student is always going to take help of a counsellor or an agent,” he said.

“They must work with reputed and credible agencies that are being used by other leading institutions and have credentials.”

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