This blog was kindly contributed by Ying Yang, formerly an education agent in China. Ying is pursuing a PhD at Manchester Institute of Education investigating the role of education agents in the marketization in China of British postgraduate programmes.
For many academics, the important role of education agents in shaping the journeys and decision-making processes of international students remains an unknown quantity. Many staff are unaware of how many students rely on agents to guide their application process and to what extent agents are involved. Occasional shock stories of malpractice pop up in the press, such as reported by Independent News for International Students, some education companies seek a competitive edge getting their students direct access to admissions officers at top U.S. universities, but many agents are well-trained, professional and ethical in their practices.
From December 2012 to August 2017, I worked as a senior consultant at a private education agency in China. Mostly, I offered consultations related to overseas education programmes, applications and study visas. I conducted extensive data collection from students on their family and educational background as well as their future expectations. I also helped students prepare application documents, as well as apply for their visas.
I found that students have various motives to study in the UK. Some were charmed by British culture at a young age and were determined to study in UK after graduation from their undergraduate programs in China; some students simply follow their parents’ demand to complete a one-year master’s programme in the UK, seen as a source of social prestige; others initially had no idea of overseas education but changed their mind to pursue British programmes after interacting with agent-consultants. In the conversations with my student-applicants I came to realise that many prospective students were not sure whether they should go abroad, which country they would like to go, what subject they should study or how they would apply for British postgraduate programmes. These experiences provoked me to try and figure out the role of education agents in students’ decision-making processes which led them to want to study in the UK.
What services do education agents offer?
In view of my work as an agent and my masters’ research, an interesting finding is that Chinese students tend to use agents as preparation for overseas education. Students who use agents commonly go through the process of wondering whether to study abroad or not, searching for information, signing a service contract with agents, selecting schools, applying for schools, waiting for results, choosing an enrolled school, as well as their visa application. Clearly agents intervene with students’ decision making at an early stage.
After signing the service contract, in most cases agent-consultants together with students will go through the steps outlined in the chart below. First of all, the agent-consultant gathers the student’s relevant information including family background, education background and future expectation. Second, based on the given information, agents search for appropriate universities and courses for students. In the meantime, a checklist of application documents will be provided to students. Third, students will collect relevant documents according to the checklist. Fourth, agents will brainstorm with students about the personal statement, reference, CV, and other supplementary documents. Fifth, consultants embark on processing the application documents and complete online applications. Sixth, after submitting all the applications, agents will track the application status and regularly inform students of any updates. As soon as all the application results come out, agent consultants will notice students and offer suggestions on how to choose a final university. Finally, agents will help students to finish the visa application. Besides, additional services may be included such as accommodation application, air ticket booking and pick-up services.
Why are education agents a necessity for Chinese students interested in overseas education?
In my research, some participants completely depended on the agents’ services to finish their applications. Interestingly, even though some participants did lots of research about overseas education by themselves, they still felt they needed the agents to deal with their applications. These situations illustrate some insights into the value of the agents.
- The lack of knowledge about countries, institutions, subjects, application documents and application procedures directly leads to prospective students leaning heavily on agents’ services. In my previous research, a few participants pointed out that information published on platforms featuring mistakes or discrepancies made them doubt the credibility of the platform. For example, Student H said:
Some university websites indicate that the estimate cost in UK is around 210,000 Yuan while the information I learned from some internet forums is 400,000 Yuan. If the cost is too high, my parents cannot afford it. However, agents can provide the relatively accurate amount based on their students’ data.
Agents’ abundant database is felt to be an effective tool to help students learn the reality of studying abroad.
- Students rely on agents’ services to improve their chance of success in application. Most participants reflected that they could not take any risk on their applications. In terms of personal essays, they did not know what to write or how to write it. Even if they tried to write, they were unsure whether their expressions were understood or accepted by British university staff. With respect to application forms, they were afraid that they would make ‘fatal’ mistakes in filling in the forms, resulting in rejection.
- Many students apply during their final year of high school while studying for the intensive national standardized test, the Gaokao, or they apply for postgraduate study while completing their final year of university. Under these circumstances they have limited time and energy so education agents can take on significant responsibility for them. Most students were busy preparing for the IELTS English language test, undertaking internships or attending school classes when they started their applications. Agents can play the role of a capable assistant to save save time and lighten the student’s burden in managing a complex and unfamiliar process.
- The use of agents for overseas study is normalised, so many students go with the flow. According to my interviews, online advertising and offline promotion activities contribute to reinforcing the profound role of education agents in overseas application in China.
Clearly, education agents play a significant role in Chinese students’ decision-making processes. Similarly, a growing number of British universities rely on agents to recruit international students. In light of the surging number of Chinese students coming to UK through agents, it is vitally important for researchers, education providers and policy makers to fully understand the role of education agents in the marketization of British higher education today.
In accordance with the existing related research and reports, I personally think that education agents play a profound role in recruiting international students for British universities, but also in influencing international students’ decision making and even in progressing the marketization of overseas programs.
A note on the future
Last summer I visited some agents in China. It was interesting to find that a range of new projects and programmes are being developed by agents. These include online overseas tutoring courses and a range of services to prepare potential students (especially those who are under-performing) prior to applying for overseas programs. It will be of great value to explore to see how agents equip students as well as promote programmes.