GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Recruitment Agents: An Excuse for Prejudice

In Happy Mondays on 2010/04/19 at 09:00

“US and Australia Usher in New Agent Guidelines” –This article came flying through my Twitter feed this week and I was happy to see that progress is being made towards institutionalizing the training and vetting of agents who recruit international students to study at higher ed institutions. This is particularly important as countries such as the US ramp up their recruitment of international students in hopes of diversifying their student body and revenue base.

I include revenue here because higher education is a business. While we know that our institutions focus on teaching, research, students, and faculty, we need to be more open about the fact that they also focus on generating revenue. Perhaps this is most obvious in the US, where some private institutions are now charging upwards of $40,000 a year.

In the world of international education, one of the more controversial issues in academic institutions in the US is the use of agents. What I want to address in this post is how the use of agents in the recruitment of international students brings together an interesting mix of:

  1. a denial of academia’s pursuit of profits witnessed through the ethical concern over commission-based recruiting
  2. a xenophobia or prejudice against international agents and students.

Scholars of racism and sexism know that certain events and processes create situations where prejudice becomes more explicit and obvious. In my experience, the practice of contracting agents is one of those processes.

Discussions over the process of contracting agents to recruit international students have facilitated some of the most open prejudice I have witnessed in academia. The agents are often from Asia and the Middle East and are rarely white men recruiting white students. Agents are human – some may be unethical but many are just as talented and amazing as our very best admissions folks. The people in admissions and recruitment do many things but one thing they do particularly well is sell our institution for us. Agents are experts in their countries and regions and we pay them to sell our institutions on our behalf.

Just as we work hard to hire the best admissions counselors and recruiters, we should also choose to work with the best agents.

Agents are interested in assisting prospective students in finding a good institutional fit. These agents know that their reputation depends on that good fit. They want the student to attend the institution, successfully graduate from the institution, and return to their home country to move on to further success. They are not trying to talk people into applying to institutions just so they can get a commission. The horror stories of a bad fit can ruin their reputations and the reputations of the agencies they work with.

I am always surprised to hear otherwise intelligent people use illogical arguments to support their views against recruiting international students. These same individuals are even more vehemently opposed to the use of agents in this recruitment.

In these discussions, it is assumed that:

  • documents have been forged,
  • students have cheated on tests,
  • students have attended suspect institutions, and
  • agents have coerced students into applying and have taken their money
  • agents have lied to students and are generally untrustworthy

The unspoken assumptions that support and fuel this prejudice are:

  • domestic students do not forge documents,
  • do not cheat on tests,
  • attend reputable institutions and
  • do not work with fee-charging counselors who help them write their essays and prepare for their interviews

Obviously, some students are honest and some are not. This is true for both domestic and international applicants. If we assume that the domestic applicants and their counselors are being honest, we must make the same assumption for international applicants and their agents.

We should not insult the rest of the world by using the trump cards of ‘ethics’ and ‘quality’ as justification for the practice of prejudice.

Mary Churchill

Related Post: Recruiting International Students: Moving Beyond Revenue

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Related articles and websites:
  1. Aleem, Zeesha. 2009.”The Changing World of International Recruitment.” AACRO Transcript (interesting comments) link here
  2. Clark, Nick. 2010. “The Use of Recruiting Agents in the United States” March 2010. World Education News and Reviews link here
  3. De Luca, Marisa. “‘Agent’ – A Dirty Word?” Institute of International Education website – link here
  4. Redden, Elizabeth. 2009. “Not-So-Secret Agents” June 10, 2009. Inside Higher Ed website – link here (good article and many comments)
  5. Steinberg, Jacques. 2009. “Before College, Costly Advice Just on Getting In.” July 18, 2009. New York Times online  – link here
  6. Steinberg, Jacques. 2009. “For Hire for Hundreds of Dollars, or Thousands, Independent Counselors Proliferate.” July 18, 2009. New York Times online – link here – blog post to accompany article with over 300 comments from readers
  7. SUNY Becomes Host to the American International Recruitment Council Secretariat. Jan 31, 2010 – press release – link here
  8. AACRO Proposed Standards – response from AIRC President and Chairman  link here
  9. ICEF Agent Training Courses – more info here
  1. Well said, Mary! Fervent yet balanced. I guess my opinion of the piece is helped by the fact that I agree with your perspectives in relation to prejudice against ‘international’ students. Thank you for taking a non-conventional stand on this issue.

    • Thanks Trish. It is such a controversial issue and I’ve been in many heated discussions on the topic. I was pretty angry when I wrote the first draft of this post – a couple of revisions helped me tone it down a bit!

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