Study abroad for a full degree has developed from an elite to a mass phenomenon. Parallel to this development, we have witnessed a commercialization of international higher education where many institutions have become financially dependent on full fee paying international students. To operate in this (global) market, institutions – and especially the lesser-known ones – now frequently turn to agents and recruiters in order to attract prospective students. Many point to the risks of these third party agents and plea for more regulation or even abolishment.

Abolish or regulate? In Inside Higher Ed, Philip Altbach, the Director of the Center for International Higher Education sheds his light on this issue. His viewpoint is clear and unambiguous: “Agents and recruiters are impairing academic standards and integrity — and it’s time for colleges and universities to stop using them.”

These agents recruit prospective students and provide general information, but – according to Altbach – in reality they are also making offers to students or actually admit students, often based on murky qualifications (even though the colleges that hire them say that they still control admissions).

Some initiatives have appeared in the United States with the objective to regulate this ‘new profession’ but these organisations lack powers to monitor compliance or discipline violators. The solution Altbach provides is simple: abolish them! After all, they have no legitimate role in higher education.

Dutch Self regulation

In the Netherlands, the institutions have chosen self-regulation as the prime instrument for managing (the excesses of) international recruitment. The sector-wide ‘code of conduct’ sets out standards for Dutch higher education institutions in their dealings with international students. One chapter in this code of conduct (pdf) deals with the use of agents. The provisions in this chapter stipulate that agents have to act in the spirit of the code and clarifies the responsibilities of the agents and those of the higher education institutions. One of the starting points is that admission remains the responsibility of the institutions and that institutions have to take action immediately in the case of unethical behavior.

This way of dealing with the risks of student recruitment (in an increasingly commercialized market) is somewhat comparable to the method of self-accreditation or ‘accreditation lite’ in the United States. Altbach criticized this method because of the lack of powers in the case of non-compliance.

Other solutions?

In some of the comments below the Inside Higher Ed article, Altbach’s view is portrayed as elitist. Prestigious American schools like Boston College might not need such recruiting agencies. But what about less prestigious universities? What about the ones that are not part of the Ivy League, the Russell Group or the Group of 8? Maybe, these institutions do need professional assistance in reaching prospective international students.

For these institutions, abolishment might not be acceptable. In addition, it remains the question whether all of these agents are rogue operators? Is Altbach’s opinion also valid for agents in other parts of the world? Or is this phenomenon only apparent in the more commercially higher education sectors (Altbach is mainly referring to the USA, Australia and the UK)?

Either way, even if the number of malicious operators would be small, some form of regulation might be necessary to protect the numerous international students who are about to invest a lot of money into their future. Should we let the market do its work or does this sector need government protection? Or is there enough trust in the higher education institutions (and in the majority of the agents) and should we apply soft instruments like codes of conduct and other forms of self-regulation?

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