A new report has proposed the creation of a UK-wide quality framework that will ensure the higher education sector can strengthen its relationship with education agents and position the country as a high-quality study destination.
Commissioned by British Universities’ International Liaison Association and the UK Council for International Student Affairs, A Partnership for Quality: A Route to a UK Quality Framework with Education Agents recommends a framework initiative co-designed in partnership with education agents and students to ensure widespread adoption.
The sector-wide initiative will create a national Code of Ethical Practice for UK Education Agents, and review and revamp communication and training to increase access and engagement. It will also develop a good practice guide for UK providers.
The research, conducted by specialist education consultancy Edified, included input from 500 students, 300 education agent managers and 100 staff from UK HEIs.
“This research highlights that the value of [agents’] services is well recognised by students, institutions and most stakeholders”
Approximately half of the 203,000 new international students from beyond the EU that UK institutions welcomed in 2018/19 used education agent services to help gain admission and to navigate the UK’s visa processes, the report estimated.
This is compared to the estimated 73% of international higher education students in Australia who use the services of education agents.
The 2018/19 cohort in the UK contributes around £11.88 billion to the country’s economy over the lifetime of their studies, it added, but continued that the “monetary value of education agents’ work is only one factor”.
“This research highlights that the value of [agents’] services is well recognised by students, institutions and most stakeholders,” the report read.
“Education agents generally facilitate a smoother application and enrolment journey, help to reduce the administrative burden on student administration teams and government visa officials, and are largely committed to continual professional development.
“They are an essential component of UK HEIs’ international student recruitment strategies and to the UK’s ability ‘to increase the number of international higher education students hosted in the UK to 600,000 per year by 2030’.”
While there is already widespread good practice to ensure a quality experience, there are also “opportunities for greater transparency that will enhance this important provider/agent partnership”, the report noted.
By introducing the three recommendations – the Ethical Practice code, the revamped training scheme and the good practice guide – the UK sector will ultimately help ensure students receive a consistent and quality service from education agents in addition to increased international student numbers.
“The Covid-19 pandemic, and the support students received from education agents, demonstrated to us how important agents are to both the sector and to students,” Bobby Mehta, chair of BUILA and director of UoP Global, University of Portsmouth, added.
“This research has also revealed excellent examples of best practice between universities and education agents that we want to develop and share across the sector.”
The research highlighted that around 70% of international students would recommend their education agent to others and 85% felt that the advice their education agent provided was accurate.
Nearly all (93%) of HEI staff surveyed agreed that “education agents are essential to the success of international education in the UK and integral to their provider student recruitment strategy”.
Areas of concern that stakeholders highlighted included transparency as to whether an agent is an “official” representative of the HEI students want to attend, whether they are being paid a commission by an institution and whether students are paying for core services on top of the paid commission.
However, only 31% of the 109 HEI respondents agreed that agents push students to where they receive the highest commission rate.
Over half of HEI respondents said they were concerned about their lack of direct control over sub-agents, but 61% agreed to their use if the contracted agent has their consent.
“Education agents play a key role in supporting international students and helping them transfer, and settle in, to their studies in the UK”
“Education agents play a key role in supporting international students and helping them transfer, and settle in, to their studies in the UK,” said Anne Marie Graham, UKCISA chief executive.
“This framework will help them to deliver an enhanced student-centric service that will benefit the whole sector.”
The research also consulted sector stakeholder bodies such as Universities UK, British Council, Independent HE and UCAS, and UK government departments including Department for Education, Department for International Trade, the Home Office and Office for Students.
“This report from BUILA and UKCISA outlines clear recommendations that will support universities to increase international student recruitment towards the government’s 600,000 target in a sustainable and responsible manner,” Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said in a statement.
The framework will be formally launched in July 2021 followed by a two-year transition period.