However, seeking compromise over what remains a divisive issue, the Commission behind the report proposes that NACAC change its “Mandatory Practices” to ensure members who use agents do so with accountability, transparency and integrity.
“Instead of planting a red light at the intersection, it provides a blinking yellow light – meaning that institutions may ‘proceed with caution,’” said Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York and agent advocate.
“Instead of planting a red light at the intersection, it provides a blinking yellow light”
The report, which follows a 15 month inquiry, proposes that NACAC “revise its Mandatory Practices…to specify that, while not encouraged, the ban on commission-based recruitment will be considered as a “best practice” in the area of international recruitment”.
In return, NACAC members, which comprise the majority of US universities and colleges, would need to introduce various protections. These include a “feedback loop to monitor that students receive the services they were promised during recruitment”; ensuring that the terms of transactions between agents, institutions and students are clear and transparent; and facilitating “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of arrangements by agents with institutions for students and families.
Long against commission-based recruiting overseas, NACAC launched its review in 2011, after a proposal to clamp down on members who used commissioned based agents overseas met with 300 public comments, highlighting the divided opinion on the matter.
It also reflected an emerging reality: that US schools facing declining state and institutional budgets are making international student recruitment “a financial imperative” and that agents play a key role. “Reaching this pool of prospective students is an enormous challenge,” concedes the report.
“We wish, with this report, to ensure that this recommendation is not seen as a blanket endorsement of commission-based recruitment”
It adds that agent assistance can include providing knowledge of local culture and language; the ability to explain the United States’ “vast and complex” HE system to local students; and a geographic reach that many international offices would struggle to match.
However, while roughly 22% of NACAC members in 2010 said they used agents (the American International Recruitment Council believes it could be as high as 50%), the practice remains a dirty secret in the sector—disapproved of by the US State Department and NACAC (although confusingly supported by the Department of Commerce).
“I have heard university presidents adamantly deny working with agents, even though their institutions are known to have agency contracts in place,” said Leventhal.
The report still broadly disapproves of agent use, however, citing major concerns such as conflict of interest among agents representing multiple institutions; falsification of documents and embellishment of applications; and taking commission from student scholarships. It also encourages schools to use existing channels such as EducationUSA as their first port of call when building an international recruitment strategy.
“We wish, with this report, to ensure that this recommendation is not seen as a blanket endorsement of commission-based recruitment,” they say.
“It is the fence-sitters who will become more vigilant and wary of using agents”
Rahul Choudaha, director of research at World Education Services, argued that the Commission’s stance of allowing while disapproving of agents would in fact deter, rather than encourage agent use. “Some institutions will always use agents and some other will never use them. However, it is the fence-sitters who will become more vigilant and wary of using agents as the Commission notes use of agents as not being a ‘best practice,'” he said.
Others said the Commission’s proposals could do the opposite, however. Vilma Gomes, operations director at Brazil’s biggest agency association, BELTA, said: “Yes, the report’s positive but certainly not what BELTA’s members focused on higher education would expect after the hard work they put into providing high standards…But it’s better than a ban and might help improve numbers.”
Meanwhile the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), whose members adhere to an ethical code when using agents, welcomed NACAC’s promotion of responsible agent use. Board member Norm Peterson, who also sat on the Commission, told Inside Higher Ed: “While my own view of commissioned agent work is a little bit more positive than the report reads, I think that a report that proposes caution to institutions and suggests some guidelines that institutions need to follow in order to use this mechanism correctly is a good thing at this time.”
“Yes, it’s positive but certainly not what BELTA’s members focused on higher education would expect”
Leventhal agreed that a sensible compromise had been reached, and praised the Commission for acknowledging the complexity of the situation and avoiding “black and white” solutions.
“If NACAC approves and ratifies this change I believe that many institutions which have previously hidden their [agent] relationships will feel safe revealing them,” he said. “In fact its call for transparency will practically compel a more honest debate.”
NACAC members will vote on the proposals at the association’s conference in Toronto this September.