Matthew Knott, News Editor of StudyTravel Magazine
Opinion... from the News Editor

Some years after we thought the debate on the use of commission payments for agents in the USA had been settled, it appears to have reared its head again with a regional university accreditation body proposing to prohibit the practice.

The somewhat retrograde proposal by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) flies in the face of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (Nacac) decision to officially permit the use of agents in 2013, the desire of many students and parents to get assistance in their own language from a local company, and no doubt the regular recruitment policies of a large number of its own accredited institutions.


MSCHE is the accrediting body for universities in New York, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Delaware, and therefore represents a significant number of international student-recruiting institutions.


Some rival destinations and source countries must look at the USA with a certain sense of disbelief when it tangles itself in the agent debate, but the emotiveness of the issue is rooted in domestic recruitment issues from decades ago, and the fact that the USA's education system is organised at state, rather than national, level, with accordingly different fee structures.


The Department of Education in the USA outlaws the use of commission or incentives for the recruitment of American students. The law does not apply to international students, so there has always been something of a grey area.


A lot of the arguments on message boards that I have seen this week relate to "the student's best interest". A certain section of the industry in the USA believes that agents cannot act in a student's interest and promote the best institution if their motive is to earn a commission.


But what are the alternatives? Any single university only represents itself. Surely an agency with 20-to-30 universities in its portfolio is offering a student more choice and counselling than a university international officer offering only one school? And if institutions think bodies like Education USA can handle all enquiries and counselling, that is being rather naïve. The reasons that a student utilises an agency are many, and well documented in StudyTravel Magazine.


Another typical line seems to be that there are 'some bad agents out there'. Well of course there are. Is there a single industry in the world economy that doesn't have a mixture of good and bad operators? There are a plethora of routes to due diligence, including the global Federation of Education and Language Consultant Associations (Felca) code of conduct, the national associations that constitute Felca, agent screening at conferences, peer referencing, student feedback and more.


It is worth noting that at the moment this is only a draft document from MSCHE and it has not been confirmed as concrete policy. We can only hope that a significant number of agent-utilising institutions within MCSHE's jurisdiction object.


And what would happen if the proposal is accepted as policy? Would the institutions that are using agents suddenly stop, thus losing business to rivals beyond the MSCHE area? Would they carry on regardless, risking their accreditation? The landmark Nacac decision in 2013 always felt more of a reflection that a large number of its members were using agents anyway, regardless of the guidelines prior to that decision.


Agency-based recruitment is lower for USA universities than it is for the UK, Canada and Australia. But then so is international student recruitment on a per capita basis. International students constitute less than five per cent of all higher education students in the USA, compared with closer to 20 per cent in the UK and Australia. As Jean-Marc Alberola of Bridge Education Group says in our news story, US institutions need agents if they want to build a brand and international presence.


And indirect use of agents runs far deeper than the headline rates suggest. A university may say that it doesn't use agents, but they often have a partnership with one of the major pathway providers that definitely do use agents, as the research on agent usage in the USA that Jean-Marc commissioned last year demonstrated.


So we hope that common sense prevails. Given the generation-high value of the dollar and the so-called 'Trump effect', the USA can ill afford to cut off such a significant stream of international student recruitment.



By Matthew Knott

News Editor