The ongoing, and at times heated, debate about the use of paid independent contractors or agents for recruitment of overseas students hit another milestone in July. That month, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) announced that it is delaying a move to punish colleges that use agents, and that it will appoint a commission to study the issue, giving the impression that NACAC may be backtracking on its previously strong stand against the use of commission-based agents.
The debate, which has been going on for at least a decade, centers on the ability of agents to be ethical professionals free from conflicts of interest. The ‘against’ argument says that receiving a commission acts as an incentive for misrepresentation, conflict of interest and even fraud on the part of the agent. Also, it would mean that students’ interests become secondary if not altogether irrelevant.
The ‘for’ argument says that, for a reasonable fee, a good agent can help students and their families overcome cultural and linguistic barriers and successfully navigate complex visa and admissions procedures. Given the fact that no single institution has the resources to provide services to tens of thousands of students from all across the globe, what other choice do students in China or India, or any other country, have but to rely on agents?
Proponents of the role of agents do not dispute the existence of unethical agents and fraud but their answer is a system of ethical standards of practice, training and certification for agents. The International Development Program (IDP), established by Australian universities in 1969, and The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), established in 2008, are two organizations that are active in setting up guidelines and standards of practice for paid agents. As Geraldine de Berly, Senior Associate Dean at University College, Syracuse University and an AIRC certification board member sees it, the main job of the board is to ensure that agents meet the extensive standards that have been developed by the Council.
“It is in the interests of agencies, universities and students that students are provided with accurate information and reasonable expectations about the admission process to an American college or university,” de Berly said.
The issue has long been settled in Australia and the British Council also changed its policy of “no agents”, having been training and certifying agents since the late 1990’s, but the debate still rages on in the United States. Organizations such as NACAC and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) have come out forcefully against the use of paid agents while AIRC and, more recently, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) have taken the opposite view. Representing more than 200 U.S. university presidents, APLU’s entry into the fray on the ‘for’ side is of great significance. It’s noteworthy that it is illegal to pay commissions to recruiting agents for signing up students within the United States and that the U.S. Department of State prohibits its EducationUSA advising centers in foreign countries from working with recruiting agents who have contracts to represent specific American universities.
Although it is possible for a university to have a good track record in recruiting foreign students and in achieving a critical mass in the numbers and countries of origin of its international students without ever using a paid agent, it is becoming increasingly difficult and costly to choose this course. Given that it is also possible to have ethical agents who are trained and certified by organizations such as IDP, AIRC or the British Council, the decision then becomes a matter of individual choice for each institution rather than a fight-to-the-death question pitting one group of higher education faculty and administrators against another.
A case in point is the University of Waterloo, which perhaps, also illustrates the general situation in Canada. As an institution, Waterloo did not use agents until relatively recently. Establishing a campus in Dubai in 2009 prompted the University to formalize relations with agents and, later on, to sign an agreement with IDP.
“Personally, I had to use agents as a matter of necessity when we started a campus in Dubai,” said Leo Rothenburg, Associate Vice President of International at Waterloo. “The bottom line is that you have to know your agents, help them in their work, and then they will help you.”
To sum up, whether to use paid agents for recruitment of foreign students or not is just a question about practicality and cost-effectiveness, and a question that each university must answer for itself. It is not an ideological question and a one-size-fits-all policy does not exist.
Further Reading: The Chronicle of Higher Education has been covering the issues, the players and the arguments of the debate in the last few years pretty comprehensively. Of special note is their June 16, 2011 piece, “International-Student Recruitment Debate: 6 Views on Agents”.