Saturday, August 14, 2010

Overseas Students in the UK: Reflections on the Agency System

I have decided to focus my research on the Overseas Student experience, particularly in the UK. I have strong reasons: I have access to a lot of overseas students, and the fact that I feel a natural affinity, though, truth be told, I have never been an 'overseas' student myself.

I still have an year before I start writing the thesis, so I decided to use this time to collect data and reflect. This blog, being my scrapbook of ideas and the platform to continue the conversation with all those who share my interests, will obviously be the place where I post these ideas and observations.

I shall start with a random one. The use of agencies by British colleges and universities have always been controversial, though the practice has only expanded in the recent years to American colleges. The idea is simple and common sense - that a commission is paid to an agent for recruiting students on behalf of British universities and colleges. The commission varies from 10% to 35%, not a bad sum considering that the students pay anywhere between £4000 to £15000 for these courses [there are more expensive courses, but the better universities don't usually employ agents]. The commission is usually paid after the student has paid the university/ college, so the financial risk to the recruiting university is minimum. It works for the student, as they can find a local representative of the college, who often help them sort out a number of other issues apart from academic advice. It surely works for an agent - they not only earn money through commission, but from English tuition, visa assistance, travel and accommodation arrangements etc.

However, the problem is - this is a notoriously difficult practice to regulate. The agents are in different countries, often one off individuals or small businesses, and their business practices are ad hoc and opaque. Most of visa fraud that the British newspapers are concerned about comes from this agency-based recruitment practice, with agencies helping students to fabricate documents showing education or work experiences they never had. It is not uncommon for students to have 'worked' for the agents themselves, and I have known about agents who employ professional forgers who would go to extremes such as forging passports to do English examinations on behalf of the students. More ominously, it is very common to find agencies controlling both ends of the process - university or college marketing officers are often too cosy with the agents and even may be directly related to them - spawning a type of conflict of interest which will not be tolerated in any other sector.

The prevalence of this practice makes me believe that the current immigration control efforts, by cutting the number of visas and by introduction of a points based system for student visas, are misdirected. These would successfully make Britain a more difficult place to come for study for those who are applying for university studies [it already is, with the fact that foreign students pay three times the fees compared to the domestic students], but will do nothing to curb the number of students who wish to cheat the system. Besides, unless the agency system is put under review, such arbitrary immigration controls will ensure that Britain only gets the mediocre or sub par students, with the agents conniving with people at various high commissions to push through their candidates.

Given the current public consensus that something must be done to set right the student visa system, urgent attention must be focused, therefore, on the use of agency system by recruiting institutions. I would have said the system should be banned altogether, but that may be impractical. However, since the ratings system for sponsors of foreign students is already in place, the UK Border Agency can easily demand that to get the Highly Trusted Sponsor status, an institution must not recruit through agents [in other words, must be able to recruit directly]. The loss of agency system should then be compensated by fast tracking applications of students who are applying to a highly trusted sponsor, and even giving them a different yardstick, like lower maintenance funds [the amount of money students need to show in their bank account, which is a hotbed of fraudulent practices - it is often the agent who puts the money and charges the students for the same]. Besides, if a number cap has to be introduced, the government may clearly give the Highly Trusted sponsors a much higher quota.

I am conscious that the other sponsors, who are in A and B ratings, are the ones who use the agency system most and the abuses are also maximum here. The government must regulate these practices, by imposing some of the simple conflict of interest regulations which are pretty common in other areas of life. For example, the UK Border Agency must crack down on institutions employing representatives of the agents as Admission Officers. It will be a difficult thing to achieve, but at least a simple check - enforced on all sponsors of student visas - that they can not employ any person who have a direct or indirect interest in an agency business - can be achieved. It is difficult to achieve, as most people run the agencies in different countries through siblings and other relatives, but such rules exist in other sectors and a little scrutiny will surely help raise the standards of practice. A declaration by the sponsors will help the owners/ principals in these institutions to know that the practice is not desirable, and give investors and trustees another benchmark to follow.

On the payment side, the Border Agency should be able to control how much is paid to the agents and when. For example, higher rates of commission invariably means that the agent will then be able to employ a sub-agent, creating further complications. Besides, it is desirable that the agency payments are not made at once, but in stages - may be in line with the retention targets of the border agency, but if not, at least after the student turning up and joining the intended course of study, not immediately as the student pays his/her fees. The sponsors must be able to show clear agency contracts and track their payments to show to the Border Agency.

There are two practices which will still undermine effective control even if the above mentioned attempts are made. Currently, there is a system of British Council's Trusted Agents, but that helps to achieve nothing, except that it legitimizes the agency practice itself, help British Council to earn some money and give them some arbitrary powers over the trade. Time has come to recognize that such practices have failed: Otherwise, we shall not be where we are, and this is an important policy area that should not be left to a semi-public body like the British Council. British Council may go back to its originally conceived role, that of promoter of British Education, and it must shun agency practices as well.

Secondly, many colleges and universities have started opening offices and subsidiary companies in different countries, which are in turn controlled, and sometimes manned, by the agents. This means most of the commercial transactions are outside the purview of the Border Agency, or at least very difficult and expensive to track. This practice needs to be carefully reviewed, and ideally, all agency contracts must be entered into in Britain, and all payments must be made after the payments have been received in a British Bank Account.

Lord Browne's review of University Funding is due soon, and if expectations are met, this will change the way British Universities are funded and hopefully, this will help make them a more competitive, attractive destination for international students. But, the way things stand as of now, we are in the danger of over-regulating the genuine students and hyping up a collective xenophobia against the international students altogether: This will surely undermine Britain's position as a premier destination for overseas education. [See the recent article on Economist here]. A clear and purposeful review of the agency system is long overdue, and if the political rhetoric of immigration control is to be matched, the UK Border Agency can not any longer maintain its hands off attitude to the agency practice.

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