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US faces growing pains as agency use increases

Alongside the proliferation of commission based agents in US higher education recruitment, has come some growing pains including snags in communication, unrealistic expectations and a lack of cross-departmental support.

AIRC has certified 13 new agents, and re-certified 10. Photo: The PIE News

"We’re still babies as far as working with agencies and our role with agencies"

At the annual American International Recruitment Council conference, held this month in Miami, agents and institutions aired their grievances about new and potential relationships.

Anxieties around the level of communication between the two parties were voiced, while a lack of cohesion between different institutions’ departments can often pose a challenge in the process of institutions working with agents, participants said.

“You expect students, great, but what are you going to do”

Constant communication back and forth between the two parties is necessary, agents urged.

“Just throwing the ‘I expect you to bring X amount of students’ doesn’t mean anything to me,” said one agent.

“You expect students, great, but what are you going to do, are you going to sit down and wait for me to get them, or are you going to show up every once in a while to meet the students?”

An American agent in the session said she finds it easier to work with Australian institutions because their process of dealing with agencies is a “lot more established, a lot more streamlined and a lot more professional in many ways”.

“And I think one of the reasons is that the practice of working with agents has been in place in Australia for a long time.”

According to Bridge Education Group and StudentMarketing research, the pace of adoption of using education agencies in the US is quickening. Their study found that one third of institutions surveyed use student recruitment agencies.

This growth is reflected in the increase in membership of AIRC, according to Mike Finnell, executive director of the association.

This year, 13 new education agencies became AIRC certified, and 10 more were re-certified.

“One of the biggest factors that brings new institutional members to AIRC is first and foremost often interest in understanding how to work with agencies,” he told The PIE News.

“There’s a lot of stress on domestic enrolment in the US and more institutions are turning to how do we put together a strategy to either start or increase our international student enrolment, and agencies are a fast growing trend.”

George Burke, international admissions and recruitment specialist at SUNY University of Albany and international education consultant, said the sheer volume of educational institutions in the US, compared with the UK and Australia combined, adds to the challenge of working with agents.

“One of the thoughts I need to share with institutions is we’re faced with 4,200, 4,500 institutions and agents think the US might just sell itself,” he said, observing that agencies might find it easier to represent just a few hundred institutions in the UK and Australian markets.

“The US, as an open business, has really only been doing it since about 2005, 2006, 2007… So we’re still babies as far as working with agencies and our role with agencies,” he commented.

“I think there’s a lot of institutions [that] still face the challenge of trying to coordinate a strategy across departments”

Negative press coverage of unscrupulous agents has also been a barrier to adoption in the US as the Bridge report notes that over half of respondents find out about bad agency practices through the media.

However, agents and institutions agreed that coverage does not often reflect that substandard practices can go both ways.

“I think everybody talks about good agents and bad agents, nobody talks about good universities, bad universities,” said an agent representative, adding that he has had experience with universities not paying commission despite having a contract.

Speaking afterwards to The PIE News, Burke observed that the scepticism around education agents is abating but agreed that national press coverage is stymieing the sector-wide acceptance of education agents in the US.

“I see institutions understanding that [agents] are not all bad guys, because NACAC labelled them as bad guys,” said Burke. “And now they’ve softened their stand.

“But bad press hurts the development and what it hurts most is the presidents and provosts will still do the business on the side, but they won’t talk about it publicly, so they won’t make the profession better.”

Meanwhile, institutions who wish to work with agencies face the task of overcoming departmental isolation to gain campus-wide support.

“I think there’s a lot of institutions [that] still face the challenge of trying to coordinate a strategy across departments, across undergraduate and postgraduate,” said Finnell.

“They’re trying to put a cohesive English language programme versus a graduate programme as such, and many of those are siloed in an institution. It’s often hard for the one part to really work well with others to try and increase it.”

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