Does the MAC Review demand a rethink on recruitment agents? (Opinion)

It is a time for celebration across the UK HE sector. The MAC Review found no evidence of abuse of the graduate route visa and recommended that the government maintains the scheme. Among the cheers however are some commentators more moderately claiming the ‘battle’ not yet to be won, aware that the government could still choose to ignore the review.

“We found no evidence of any significant abuse of the Graduate route. By abuse we mean deliberate noncompliance with immigration rules”, states the review – so what next?

The question is whether the government holds the same level-headed definition of system abuse as the MAC review. Narrative can trump reason in political decisions and the more negative findings on recruitment agents remain a pressure point on any coming policy decisions.

Not a total victory for universities

The report was not a clean sweep for the universities. There may have been no evidence of abuse of the graduate route, but there was concern about exploitative recruitment practices via third party recruitment agents.

“We do have concerns over the use of recruitment agents by universities in certain markets in providing misleading information to prospective international students” (MAC Review, pp.4).

“During both our stakeholder roundtables and research interviewing Graduate visa holders for this review, it was highlighted that some international students are the victims of bad practice by international student recruitment agents when applying under the Student route. While this is not deliberate non-compliance with the immigration rules, it impacts prospective Student visa holders and is likely to impact Graduate visa holders” (ibid, pp.34).

That is a problematic accusation for universities.– the MAC review has defended international students, but not fully endorsed university operations in securing those students.

This is a third-party issue, but universities choose to use the services of agents. When the Sunday Times earlier this year accused universities of exploitative international student recruitment via recruitment agents, there was a widespread response from the sector that the reality of agent activity had been misrepresented. Now a major independent review suggesting the same issue should at least encourage universities to check recruitment agent partnerships.

Reliance on recruitment agents?

Reliance on recruitment agents is extensive according to the report. 56% of 107 HE institutions recruiting international students use student recruitment agents. In 2021, BUILA found that approximately 50% of students were recruited via agents.

This means that universities cannot do without their recruitment agent partnerships. Most universities are dependent on international student tuition fees for income. If half of that income were to disappear, universities would fail to cover their costs. Alternative financing strategies have not yet been developed and a government seemingly determined to remove commercial revenue channels is not going to be the same government reaching into its own pockets to help.

Evidence of bad practice is however a reminder that partnerships cannot go unchecked. A key tenet of any partnership is mutual benefit and alignment of interests. While financial tension stands as an existential pressure for many universities, a university is more than its balance sheet. In the long-term, bad revenue bites.

Matching incentives

As the report points out, agents have different incentives to universities. It does not however go into much depth to why those differing incentives are important.

So, let’s consider the difference.

In revenue terms, both universities and agents are looking to successfully convert applications into income. However, once a student has arrived in the UK, a recruitment agent is done. The university meanwhile has a continued duty of care to the student. The agent gets the student to the degree, the university gets the student through the degree.

Does it matter so much to an agent whether a student performs and grows during their studies? Arguably to a certain extent in terms of future referrals and testimonials, but most responsibility will fall to the university. The university provides the course, the education, the teaching, the experience, and ultimately the degree. As such, it should be in the interests of a university to ensure each agent recruits students who match what they can offer.

The MAC Review recommends that universities be required to publish information on how they use agents, a move to guarantee good practice and improve disclosure. This in turn would “protect the integrity of the UK Higher Education system” (MAC Review, pp.4).

The implication of that statement is that current bad practice within some university-agent partnerships risks being detrimental to the integrity of UK HE.

Are recruitment agents exploiting students?

How misleading are some recruitment agents being then, and in what ways?

Before going any further it is essential to say it will be the worst of recruitment agent behaviour in the spotlight – 50% of international students arriving via agent recruitment channels provides a lot of leeway for abuse. Some agents are not all agents, and they provide an important service to universities. Bad actors should not however be ignored, especially given the huge detrimental effect bad practice can have on an individual’s education and in the long term, life. Some of the interview responses in the report are worth quoting in full:

“It was a useless course. (…)I came here through an agency, so they advised that I do a pre-Masters just to get used to the city, to get used to the education here. …That’s what they advised me to do so that’s what I did. But I think I regret it; I shouldn’t have done it, I should have gone straight to my Master’s”, one graduate visa holder shared to the MAC.

This sounds very much like an agency eking out a bigger commission. It’s not certain, as there are multiple possible misunderstandings along a recruitment process, but what is certain is the dissatisfaction of the student. Preparatory programmes are not cheap and if a student doesn’t need them, that’s a financial (and time) hit to them and a reputational hit to the university.

Another quote from the review was even more damning of recruitment agents, this time from a student representative attending one of the review’s roundtables:

“ …there’s outright lies… often these third-party educational agents… are mis-selling the UK as an immigration destination as opposed to an education destination.”

International students becoming a scapegoat in anti-immigration debates was the trigger for this MAC review, making this accusation extremely difficult to navigate. On one hand it seems to support the government’s fears of the graduate route becoming a channel for a form of migration they don’t want. On the other hand, it would suggest that recruitment agent malpractice rather than universities are the driver of that risk. Universities, in using the services of such agents, could be accused of being complicit in such a dynamic.

Some students interviewed appear to have placed an over-reliance on recruitment agents to make the right decisions for them, sometimes leading to misunderstandings and disappointment – a student interviewee admits to not doing any of their own research, and a another shares their disappointment in discovering they were misled to study in a small town instead of the big city they were expecting.

While personal due diligence is important, such experiences suggest that some recruitment agents put little care into discovering what their student clients need from a university – if true, detrimentally affecting students and universities alike.

What responsibility do universities hold?

While the sector justifiably sighs a breath of relief for an overall positive result from the MAC Review, taking its criticisms seriously is important. All organisations are responsible for the integrity of their partnerships. That includes universities.

According to the recommendations, “universities should be required to publish data on their spend on international recruitment agents and the number of students recruited through agents annually” while government should establish “a mandatory registration system for international recruitment agents and subagents” (MAC Review, pp.64).

So the review has come out in support of the graduate route, but at the cost of highlighting fair practice issues with agents, a business relationship critical to existing university funding.

Mis-selling a degree is not like mis-selling most products. Mis-sell a coffee and it’s gone in a minute. Mis-sell a car and you can bring it back to the car dealer. Mis-sell an education, and you change a student’s path from that moment on.

Celebrating the big win within the MAC Review, but then glazing over its challenges would be a risky move.

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