Louise Nicol of Asia Careers Group: The dynamics between UK universities and education agents in international student recruitment

Louise Nicol, founder and CEO of Asia Careers Group, discusses the intricate relationship between universities and education agents.

Share the post

The growing reliance of universities on education agents for international student recruitment has come under scrutiny in an era when global education is increasingly intertwined with commercial interests.

Higher education institutions in Australia and the UK, for example, are investing millions in agent fees to attract international students, highlighting the lucrative nature of the international student recruitment industry. 

In the UK, there has been a significant increase in sponsored study visas, reaching nearly 500,000. A fifth of university income is now taken from international student fees, according to The Observer/Guardian.

The tuition fees for international students exceed that of domestic students, which in the UK is frozen at £9,250 a year for undergraduate students. Meanwhile, international students can expect to pay an average of £22,000 (US$27,589). Due to higher fees, universities are able to offer substantial referral fees to education agents, making up a significant proportion of International Office spend.

The economic incentives driving international student recruitment raise concerns about transparency and ethics. Reports of agents directing students “to the highest bidder” add complexity to the discussion. 

In an exclusive interview with MSM Reporter, Louise Nicol, founder and chief executive officer of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD & alsocan, shared her insights into how transactions between publicly funded universities and education agents should be totally transparent.

Asia Careers Group, established in 2016, provides international graduate outcomes data for students returning to their home countries and seeks to improve support for international graduates transitional to the workforce.

Over 100,000 individual data points sit behind a revolutionary platform alsocan, which bridges the gap between graduates and employers, using data on careers, salaries, and graduate destinations to inform student decision making.

Nicol noted that everything discussed in the interview applies to all English-speaking destinations of higher education and any tertiary education institutions receiving government funding, regardless of location.

Total transparency, Nicol said, would ensure a level playing field globally for international student recruitment. She also disagreed with the practice of “naming and shaming” specific institutions when there is no transparency for the sector as a whole.

What are your thoughts on UK universities increasingly relying on education agents for international student recruitment?

All universities are increasingly relying on agents for their student recruitment. The UK is no exception. I would ask the question: “Are universities calculating their cost of acquisition by market for their international cohort, and are they, in fact, maximizing direct entry, through international schools, for example?”

How do you perceive the role of education agents in the current landscape of international student recruitment by UK universities?

Our view is that agents are a “middle woman/man” helping students and families navigate international applications and visas. 

That said, whilst they may be reassuring, direct entry is also possible and, in fact, not as complex as it may seem.

Given the financial incentives involved, how does the reliance on education agents impact the strategies and decisions of universities?

We would like to see the cost of acquisition per student from all publicly funded institutions published, and feel it should be transparent for the taxpayer. All universities should publish which agents they work at, in which markets, how many students they recruit, commission paid, whether or not students from a specific agency complete their courses and are successful in obtaining their degrees. Full transparency should be the minimum requirement of all publicly funded institutions.

With tuition fees for international students notably higher, how does this financial aspect influence the dynamics between universities and education agents, and how might it affect students?

There is a financial incentive for agents to get the most commission they can. After all, they are commercial entities. Therefore, it is not beyond comprehension that agents will “guide” students to those institutions they have the best relationship with and gain the most financial benefit from in terms of commission payments.

Some universities offer substantial referral fees to education agents. How do you believe these financial incentives shape the relationships between universities and agents?

The higher the referral, the more likely the agent is to recruit a student for that institution — the laws of economics apply.

There are concerns about unethical practices such as agents directing students toward certain courses for incentives. How do you think universities can navigate and address these ethical considerations?

Full transparency, who they work with, in which markets, commissions paid, and courses completed by each agency.

The risk of “rogue agents” and measures like maintaining a register were mentioned. What is your perspective on the need for regulation and oversight in the education agent industry?

There should be government regulation and a fully transparent register of all agent relationships, recruitment achieved, completion rates and commercial agreements for all publicly funded institutions.

Considering the significant economic impact of international students, how do you see the balance between economic considerations and ethical practices in the recruitment process?

I do not blame agents or universities for unethical practices, as they presently go on unhindered. Self-regulation does not hold muster, as there are strong vested interests at play. 

Voluntary codes of conduct like that introduced by BUILA, British Council, UKCISA, and Universities UK International are totally ineffective. Government regulation and total transparency are needed, if we are to reduce unethical practices in international education, and funding such regulation is crucial. To give you an example, Australia is investing AU$38.1 million in the regulation of international education and agents.

Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos has been a professional journalist for five years now. She has contributed and covered stories for premier Philippine dailies and publications, and has traveled to different parts of the country to capture and tell the most significant stories happening.

banner place

What to read next...
Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos has been a professional journalist for five years now. She has contributed and covered stories for premier Philippine dailies and publications, and has traveled to different parts of the country to capture and tell the most significant stories happening.

Sign Up for Weekly Top 12 News

Expert picks in the intl ed world, in your inbox.

Get the Top 12 trending international education news stories from around the world, sourced from authoritative media outlets and publications worldwide. 

This expertly curated newsletter aims to support the global knowledge base of international education stakeholders – higher education institutions, recruitment partners, government officials, service providers, and students. 

The newsletter is delivered to subscribers’ inbox every Wednesday evening at 10:30 PM PT / 1:39 AM ET. 

We respect and protect your privacy. If you do not wish to receive future issues of the MSM Reporter, you may unsubscribe at any time.
Read our privacy policy