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How can we ensure quality agent-based international student recruitment?

  • 30 March 2021
  • By Bobby Mehta

This blog was kindly contributed by Bobby Mehta, Chair, BUILA, Director of UoP Global, University of Portsmouth. You can find Bobby on Twitter @bmehtaUK.

The importance of education agents in the recruitment of international students cannot be overstated. They are used by an estimated 88% of higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK. But the role of education agents is often mis-understood. Responding to this and the Department for Education (DfE) and the Office for Students’ (OfS) request for feedback from the UK higher education sector on potential solutions to increase quality in student recruitment practices, the British Universities’ International Liaison Association (BUILA) and the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA), joined forces to undertake a review on how agents operate.

The review, delivered by educational specialists, looks at a range of issues and also shows international comparisons on how agents operated in the competitor countries of Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia and France. The research report, launched on 30 March 2021, examines the details of each country’s regulatory framework which in turn allows us to make our own recommendations.

Education agents are important because they help raise awareness of UK higher education (HE) through their marketing efforts, events and fairs. They also provide us with in-country market intelligence and information on the latest trends which can be key to communicating to prospective students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have provided invaluable support to students even after enrolment and have been key in communicating messages about safety and well-being to students studying in their home country.

Agents help improve the quality of the applications the UK higher education system receive by increasing the pool of potential applicants and vetting them early on, but more importantly as the international education sector becomes ever more competitive, agents help us increase student numbers from a given market or to a set of courses, or help us establish ourselves in a wholly new market.

From the student perspective, education agents play an equally important role. They help match student needs with a particular university and course. They help students navigate the often-complex application processes and entrance requirements and assist with the associated document translation and verification. Once an application is successful, agents assist incoming students with preparing their visa applications and often provide additional pastoral care, both pre- and post-departure to the UK.

And students are happy with their service. Our research highlights that approximately 70% of international students would recommend their education agent to others and 85% felt that the advice their education agent provided was accurate. This is a hugely important insight given that recommendation plays a major role in student awareness and the fact that around 50% of international students use the services of an education agent in their journey to study in the UK.

Our research report, A Partnership for Quality, A Route to A UK Quality Framework with Education Agents, is a sector-wide sector-led initiative to address areas identified within the UK Government’s International Education Strategy: global potential, global growth.  

The report recognises that best practice can be found across the higher education sector and recommends that the good work already taking place is codified and adopted as industry standard, resulting in the creation of an Education Agent & Partner Quality Assurance Framework. It calls for greater transparency around agent practices, mechanisms for ensuring the student’s voice is heard and for ways in ensuring information and best practice is shared. We are taking three practical recommendations forward:

  1. The development and promotion of a national Code of Ethical Practice for UK Education Agents to set expected standards for all education agents working with UK education providers, which will help regulate their practice. We are looking at the Code to be integrated with the following two recommendations.
  2. The review of the existing training schemes for Education Agents to increase access, engagement, and uptake and to consider recognition / certification for agents undertaking this training
  3. The development and promotion of a Good Practice Guide for Providers using Education Agents to share best practice across the sector. The step-by-step Guide will be developed in conjunction with sector professionals, education agent partners, students and key stakeholders.

Implementing these recommendations will help us establish a world-class quality assurance framework that will benefit education agents, UK providers, sector stakeholders and, most importantly, international students. It will also provide the firm foundation for the higher education sector to achieve the UK Government’s target, set out in their International Education Strategy, of recruiting 600,000 international students per year by 2030. We are delighted with the warm reception these recommendations have received from government departments during consultations undertaken as part of the research, including the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Department for Trade and other organisations, such as the Office for Students.

This is just the beginning, throughout 2021 we will continue to liaise with education agents, stakeholders from across the whole international education sector and students, to embed the above three recommendations and foster the creation of the overarching quality assurance Framework. We will also look to do further research into how we can make this quality assurance work within a changing model of agents.  We aim for the Framework to be formally launched in July 2021 but in the meantime if you would like to read the research report, A Partnership for Quality, A Route to A UK Quality Framework with Education Agents, it can be downloaded from BUILA’s website

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