Trends, insights and research to inform growth and innovation strategies in international higher education.

June 16, 2013

Using recruitment agents: Transparency to move from a dirty little secret to an open-book?

NACAC report on the use of agents for international student recruitment left most of us wanting more. At the same time, it has something for everyone to cite and justify their arguments. Overall, I am pleased with the outcomes of the report and here are my top two reasons:

1. Recognizes diversity: The report rightly recognizes that just because agents are used in other countries does not justifies its use in the US context. There are a diverse set of institutional and student needs. Any kind of ban or no ban situation would have been impractical and unhealthy. There is a wide spectrum of quality of agents which serve needs of a specific segment of students and institutions (see more on segments of international students).

Arguing that agent model works for all institutions and students is an hyperbole. Dan Zaretsky and I have a strikingly similar point of view mentioned in the Chronicle and the PIE News that some will never use agents, some will definitely use agents and perhaps the fence-sitters will become more wary as the Commission recommends that the use of incentive compensation based on number of students is not a "best practice."

2. Emphasizes transparency: To me, this is one of the most important elements which can help settle the debate. During an update meeting at NACAC in October last year, I asserted that "the Commission has rightfully acknowledged the importance of transparency, however, what is Commission's approach for enforcing transparency on institutions and then institutions in turn enforcing it on agents? For example, can we imagine a scenario where institutions will explicitly state on their websites if they work with agent and what commissions they pay, and would this information be available to students?" This emphasis on transparency will bridge the information asymmetry between institutions, agents and students and establish that using agents is not a dirty little secret but an open-book.

For example, Vincenzo Raimo in his blog post shares the example of the University of Nottingham. There are several models of transparency available in the education sector. For example, Law School Transparency project which aims "to the reform [legal education] by holding other stakeholders accountable, by making relevant data and information easy to consume....Reform starts with transparency and will end with a total reimagination of the modern law school." Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency has been working to provide "information for students, parents, and policymakers about college costs at America’s colleges and universities."

While I am overall pleased with the outcome of the report, I would have liked to see more concrete steps on how mandatory practices related to institutional accountability, transparency and integrity will be enforced. In specific, the alternatives to incentive payments remained untouched as "the Commission was unable to achieve unanimous consensus" (p. 7).

The reality is that many are engaged in a worldwide industry of agency networks. This means that stakes are high. Forward looking agencies and institutions need to work harder and set the standards by making the practices and outcomes more transparent through voluntary disclosure of data and information with students. I will be anxiously looking forward to model of institutional and agency best practices in using agents that encourage transparency to move beyond a secretive practices of information asymmetry.

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