Exclusive: New ethical code of practice will save students from rogue agents

Foreigners to be protected from unscrupulous middle-men

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The Independent Online

Plans aimed at stopping “rogue” agents supplying overseas students to UK universities can be unveiled today by The Independent on Sunday.

The British Council will publish an online database listing all the agents around the world who have signed up to a new ethical code of practice in the wake of several cases involving conflicts of interest – with the agent being paid by both student and university.

The use of agents has mushroomed over the past few years, as UK universities seek to recruit more international students who pay full-cost fees. According to researchers, UK universities are shelling out £60m a year in agents’ fees and recruiting 50,000 students annually through this method.

A study by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire has unearthed cases of fraud – one where six Sri Lankan students were “conned” out of £3,000. They had paid their agent to set them up at Blackburn College for a year – only to find the college had never received the money.

In another case, a Nigerian agency not connected with any UK universities was found to have been selling fake places at Liverpool Hope University.

In addition, the researchers uncovered several cases of “a potentially serious ethical conflict” arising from agents being paid by both the universities and their prospective students.

“This raises the concern that agents are giving advice to students based on their own financial interests rather than the specific needs of the students,” said Professor Graham Galbraith and Richard Brabner, the researchers.

In other cases, it was found the agents had completed the student’s application forms – and the student had limited knowledge of English on arrival at the university.

The researchers cite evidence from another paper on recruitment of Chinese students, and quote one student as saying: “My agent wrote the recommendation letters for me. I just needed to provide three names of my high school teachers or college instructors and he took care of the rest. I don’t know what’s in the letter!”

Professor Galbraith and Mr Brabner cite research which shows that a high proportion of overseas students believe it is the “normal and expected thing to do” to pay agents to secure them a university place. “Asian families, in particular, believe that the best way to get into Western universities is to pay for an intermediary,” the report says. However, 70 per cent of UK institutions using agents say they were not aware if the student was paying the agent, too.

Under the British Council plans, all UK education institutions will be able to see which agents have signed up to the code of conduct.

“We do not accredit education agents or agencies,” said Kevin Van-Cauter, British Council International Higher Education Adviser. “But we hope the global trained agents database ... will add greater assurance to institutions that they are getting the best possible services.”

The UK recruits 488,380 overseas students a year, of whom 333, 995 are from outside the EU. This is expected to rise by 126,000 by 2024.

Simon Read, director of Uni-Pay – which operates an international payments system for foreign students’ fees, said the British Council’s move was “very positive”. “It is a very complex system between agents, students and universities at present,” he said, “and there is a lack of structure which can leave it open to abuse. The more visibility and understanding we have on both sides – students and universities – the better. Unless there is some proper control, it can leave loopholes. The trouble is the sector has not been very open in the past. If you have a negative experience [with an agent], my view is that should be shared for the benefit of all.”

Under the code of conduct, agreements signed between universities and agents would make it clear whether or not students were being  asked to pay for the agent’s services.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK, the umbrella body representing vice-chancellors, said: “The UK’s international reputation for excellent higher education is based upon the highest quality and standards.

“While universities already have their own processes for selecting international agents, the British Council’s new list can serve as a useful additional tool for institutions. This is a positive step in efforts to protect and enhance  the reputation of UK higher education worldwide.”