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Protections need to be put in place to safeguard institutions and students against ‘commission creep’

I’m disturbed to hear of a dishonest and exploitative practice affecting further education right now.

Independent schools and universities who rely on international students to fill their classrooms and lecture halls are paying astonishing rates of commission to international education agencies, who put their thirst for profit ahead of any wellbeing for the students or the institutions they serve.

Money changing hands for pupil placement is nothing new. Education is a business just like any other and an element of recruitment takes place.

However, I’m concerned about the current issue of ‘commission creep’, which means the amounts agents are charging for good students (typically 10-20% of first year fees, which can be 6-8K) makes it unsustainable for institutions already operating on tight margins to pay and remain in profit. And yet they feel their hands are tied as vacancies cost money.

Science labs have to be state-of-the-art, music departments need to be well stocked. A lack of students can seriously dent the purse strings.

Unscrupulous agents target wealthy and naive parents, bamboozling them with poor advice and false reassurances while placing the child or young adult in a school or uni with the deepest pockets, irrespective of whether it’s a good fit or not. And when the youngster struggles to settle down and the parents decide to move them elsewhere, the vultures are back, hoping to earn commission a second time.

It is perfectly legal. In other industries, it would be outlawed but, bizarrely, not in education. And you can’t blame the parents, many of whom live abroad, have no understanding of the British education system and rely on these agents to be their conduits and represent their best interests.

Yet some agents have no relationship with the establishments they recommend and may not have visited or even spoken to them, aside from negotiating a lucrative commission. It’s a clear conflict of interests.

Paying agents commission is an expensive way of recruiting students, with many institutions spending 50-100k per year on fees. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, almost 40% of international students are recruited by agents. And it’s a growing business.

A survey by ICEF (International Consultants for Education and Fairs) in November 2018 found that of the 1,300 agents asked, between 74% and 84% expected to place more students in 2019 than they did in 2018.

Yet there are more effective ways of recruiting. Increase branding, locally and abroad so parents and pupils are better informed about what the schools and unis have to offer; establish and nurture relationships with international partners so there is a more meaningful connection and recruitment isn’t just a sales transaction. Schools and unis also need to narrow down their student profile so they know the kind of people they’re looking for.

Right now there is a scattergun approach with places sold to the highest bidder. Educational establishments, fearful of empty seats and conscious of a fragile economic climate, are being held to ransom by some agents, domestically and internationally.

Speaking anonymously to The PIE News (Professionals in International Education), one school said, ‘The dictating is very one way.’

Igor Mishurov, deputy director of Students International, a Russia-based agency, puts the blame on the competitive market as institutions ‘chase more clients’ and confirmed that his decisions were driven financially:

‘With one [school] offering 30% and another one 20%… what kind of choice should I make?’ Igor asked.

Fortunately, it is not a total sharkpit out there. There are many reputable education consultants, including my own – William Clarence – that are committed to providing transparent, impartial advice. They never ask for or accept commission from institutions for placing students with them. They have strong connections globally, are knowledgeable about the logistics of relocating and work closely with a range of schools and unis and know which people will thrive there. They appreciate that students are valued for their intellectual, cultural contribution and not just what they can offer financially.

But until this is the same for every agent or consultant, protections need to be put in place to safeguard institutions and students, as they are in Australia and New Zealand. In the UK, there is no such framework.

Each school and university has its own agencies and its own policies and thus it is open to abuse. In 2013, the British Council produced a report recommending more training for agents, an annual internal audit, taking legal advice prior to money exchanging hands and putting students first by ‘ensuring greater transparency’. Yet six years on and the problem is getting worse, not better.

Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education

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About William Clarence Education: The leading education advisory and consultancy service in the UK. With an unrivalled reach into the UK Schooling and University network, William Clarence offers unbiased advice to students and parents from around the world; at every stage of their academic journey.  From Independent School Application and Placement, full UCAS and University application consultancy, Oxbridge Applications  US College Admission and even Homeschooling programmes, William Clarence Education draws on a deep relationship driven network with schools, Universities and senior education figures within the industry.  By putting the student and family at the centre of the process, William Clarence ensures their clients reach their maximum potential and gain access to the very best of UK education.

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