Sector reacts in debate on agency “over-reliance”

Published 16/08/2022

An innovation in the way student recruitment businesses operate is clear, with more services and true global reach an outcome of the post-Covid, tech-powered operating environment, say stakeholders. But there is a range of opinion of a possible “over-reliance” on agency models and commission rate norms.

Recent figures obtained by The PIE show that universities in the UK are increasingly reliant on international education agents and stakeholders have reacted with differing opinions on the impact this may be having.

A source from one UK university told The PIE that the international sector is beginning to split into “distinct groups for recruitment” with one growing group of modern recruiting universities significantly reliant on tuition fee income which has massively increased reliance on agents.

The source highlighted that post-pandemic, institutions must reduce overheads, including the cost of staff and with budgets squeezed, the only way to “deliver growth” for some is to “increase reliance to agents on the ground, and consequently pay higher commission rates”.

“It has now become commonplace to see a Nigerian student going through an Indian agent”

“There is an increase of universities effectively outsourcing their recruitment activity, either through the use of in-country representatives, or just outsourcing the whole function.

“This is often more cost-effective, as there is limited upfront investment, but higher performance-related incentives, such as commission,” the source said.

Saurabh Suri, managing director of Hallbridge Education Group and a professional with longstanding student recruitment experience for UK institutions, agrees that universities are more reliant on agents but said that it is not as simple as a shift from students applying directly to institutions before to using agents now.

“The fact is that the number of international students arriving into the UK has increased dramatically. To respond to this increased demand, agents have professionalised – they are starting to offer online and remote services,” he said.

“It has now become commonplace to see a Nigerian student going through an Indian agent, or a student in Pakistan using an agency based in Turkey. Not to mention the fact that ApplyBoard, Adventus et al have revolutionised smaller agents’ access to universities,” he added.

In Australia, Jogvan Klein, director of international recruitment at Swinburne University of Technology and chair of the AUIDF, said that the role of the agents in Australia is not a current concern but highlighted that that the issue is “definitely something most universities monitor”.

“Most Australian universities will seek to have a balanced set of channels through which they recruit to ensure a healthy mix of students on campus, as well as de-risking exposure to sudden changes in any given channel.” said Klein.

Are average commission rates rising? Some think so, and one anonymous commentator at a UK university said it would be a concern if commission is skewing the agents’ advice to students, and regulation may be necessary.

Ross Shaw at Oxford International Education Group wrote that he believed commission would remain a key lever in HE institutions’ business agreements with agencies.

But Suri does not believe that commission rates for agents have increased across the board. Hallbridge Education Group exclusively represents York St John University in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, a university which has reduced its agency agreements.

“In some cases, particularly for lower-ranked universities, agents have become an important source of income as our own domestic UK demographic slows down – hence the slowdown in UK domestic recruitment,” Suri said.

“One thing is for sure though – the agent sector is coalescing around aggregators in bigger markets such as India, Turkey, Nigeria, and the traditional national level agents in these markets are the first ones to feel the heat,” he added.

“The emergence of newer digital platform certainly creates new drivers in markets”

In Australia, Klein agreed with Suri. “The commission rates has remained pretty steady,” he said, adding that he was seeing real innovation in the professional student recruitment industry.

“Many agents are developing new and innovative initiatives around promotion, counselling, document verification and so on, some of which comes at a cost. The emergence of newer digital platform certainly also creates new drivers in markets.”

Speaking in a personal capacity, Martin Maule, from University of Leeds and former member of the BUILA executive, said that the agents the institution has relationships with “have become increasingly important over the pandemic”.

Others The PIE spoke to nodded to the importance of agents at a time when recruiters were unable to go in-market as a result of pandemic travel restrictions.

“[Agents] have provided crucial support for our prospective students at a time when things have been complex and constantly evolving,” Maule continued, noting that Leeds works “really closely” to ensure agents can provide the information and support need for students from enquiry through to enrolment.

“We have not seen any major changes in the traditional structure and balance that exists in this relationship,” he declared.

Simon Emmett, CEO of IDP Connect, part of the global recruiting business IDP, also weighed in on the value of in-country agents.

“For a decision as life-changing as international education, you need someone in your corner. Our team of counsellors are with students, and often their families, right from first enquiry until they start in the classroom,” he said.

But in a LinkedIn post, Matthew Hornshaw, managing director, MGH Educational Consultancy and previously a recruiter at a UK university, said that in his opinion, relying on agents heavily is “risky”.

“I can imagine certain providers needing quick returns and filling campus spaces to enable income to be invested in other areas, but with the losing of a sponsor’s licence being so high on the risk register, managing agent relationships, knowing who your agents are and what they are doing is paramount,” he commented.

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