A series of Freedom of Information requests by Times Higher Education (THE) has revealed dozens of cases of fraud involving overseas recruitment agents working for UK universities, including the University of Edinburgh.
The study revealed 54 cases of fraud or impropriety between the academic years 2011-12 and 2013-14.
Of the 139 higher education institutions that disclosed their employment of overseas recruitment agents to THE, 34 institutions said they had had to take action over alleged agent malpractice within that time period.
Four of the 54 cases divulged to THE through its investigation have taken place at the University of Edinburgh.
In all four occasions, the University of Edinburgh terminated its contracts with the recruitment agents in question.
Speaking to The Student, Robbie Willis, Head of Recruitment and Development at the University of Edinburgh’s International Office, called the report’s findings, “quite shocking”.
However he maintained that the university, “were not looking to stop working with overseas recruitment agents as they still have an important role to play, particularly in the recruitment of post-graduate students who otherwise may not have access to the support often provided in high schools by college councilors”.
According to Willis, the university employs 40 overseas agencies operating in 20 countries and overseas agents recruit approximately 20 per cent of Edinburgh University’s annual international student intake, a figure he declared “surprisingly constant” despite growing international recruitment.
He added: “We don’t want to see that figure rise. Any activity with third-party agencies can pose a significant risk; there are a number of institutions now that depend entirely on agents to fill their overseas student quota, which is extremely risky.
“Allowing for such risk for 50 or even 30 per cent of international admissions is not a responsible way of doing business.”
Of the 54 reported cases reported to THE the most prevalent concern was the use of supposedly fraudulent documents or qualifications which made up 17 of the disclosed incidents, shortly followed by fee-related issues such as embezzlement or bribery which involved ten cases.
“We’ve not had any instances amongst our agents concerning these issues, but we have had to terminate contracts with agents or agencies in the past for issues surrounding sub-contracting”, Willis told The Student.
“For instance when an agency that had been contracted to work in a specific country is caught operating outside their jurisdiction, or when an agency involves other agencies to carry out our contract.”
THE’s investigation comes in the wake of a 2014 British Council Services for International Education Marketing (SIEM) commissioned study which called for UK universities to overhaul the way they used international student recruitment agents or face having external regulation imposed on them by the government.
The study argued for greater self-regulation and transparency to reduce the potential for fraudulent behavior by agents and to prevent universities from facing financial loss or damage to their reputations.
Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor global engagement at the University of Reading and one of the three researchers involved in the SIEM study, said the figures indicated that most action against alleged impropriety was informal and unrecorded.
“Different universities take very different approaches to contractual contraventions by agents, with many ignoring what others might perceive as infringements for fear of damaging future recruitment.
“Over-reliance on agents by some has clearly weakened their position in dealing with poor agent behaviour”, says Raimo.
Richard Garret, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, told THE he thought the figures were, “strikingly low relative to the allegations often made against the agent industry”.
“In any large, young, diverse, fragmented and commercial industry, such as education agents, some level of fraud is bound to occur, but personally I don’t see evidence of widespread or systematic deception.”
The use of overseas recruitment agents is common practice amongst UK universities and such employment is generally consistent with UK law, though unlike countries such as Australia or New Zealand there is no national framework or rules governing the way universities work with agents in the UK.
Growing competition in the international students market has urged UK universities to diversify their methods and increase expenditure in their student recruitment efforts abroad, with total commission payments from 106 institutions towards recruitment agents topping £86 million in 2013-14 – a sharp 16.5 per cent increase compared to 2011-12 figures of £74.4 million.
Increasing commission rates and expanding recruitment appear to be behind this rise.
Recruitment and spending data provided by 101 higher education institutions showed an average agent fee of £1,767 per student in 2013-14, though commission payments vary widely depending on the institution, agent, and market.
Speaking on the University of Edinburgh, Willis told The Student: “We haven’t seen any particularly exceptional increases in spending on recruitment or agents, though it is true that as student tuition fees rise so does the agent’s commission, but their percentage remains the same.”