Inside the ‘unchecked’ £500 million industry that is reshaping UK universities

We examine the function of education agents as students get ready for college, a little-known but very profitable sector that competes to entice international students and profit from their greater tuition costs.

Universities in the UK spend £500 million annually on a shadowy, unregulated sector. In the UK, 50% of admissions for international students are handled by educational intermediaries, who receive commissions for each foreign student they sign up. This figure rises as high as 70% in other nations, including China. When I was a teenager, the percentage was only 10%. Who are they, then, and the reason why are they so common now?

According to Vincenzo Raimo, a specialist in international higher education and a former pro vice president for global outreach at the University of Reading, education agents are “the the middle men and women that act as agents among an international applicant and a university” and “hopefully assist pupils on their path to a university overseas.”

Agents assist prospective students with their decision-making, university applications (UCAS has a distinct agent portal), visa applications, and pre-departure briefings.

The company of education agents is successful, that much is certain. Over ten years earlier than anticipated, the UK reached its goal of 600,000 international students. International pupils usually pay £22,000 a year in tuition, and with the sector’s value of student fees at £23.5 billion, they account for a sizeable portion of the United Kingdom’s university industry.

Education agents typically fill knowledge gaps regarding the United Kingdom’s education system, but some conduct their business unethically. These agents may falsify documents, loan students the “sufficient funds” needed to apply for a visa, or even offer them free iPads in exchange for switching agencies so they can keep the commission. Suella Braverman, the home secretary, spoke of “unscrupulous educators who might be promoting unlawful applications to sell immigrants not education” in May.

Agents receive from ten percent to thirty percent of first-year tuition as a “finder’s fee” through contracts with institutions. It’s referred to as “double dipping” when some agents receive payment from both the student and them.

In China, where where candidates pay $1,000 or more for assistance with their applications, personal statements, and exam preparation, dual dipping is more prevalent. The agent frequently receives a commission from the student’s preferred university without the student’s knowledge. For other services like hotel booking and airport transportation, the agency will charge more.

The role of an educational agent is difficult to define because of how they work, which can range from individual agents to senior agents and aggregates who oversee thousands of sub-agents. This gives universities access to a larger student pool, but makes it challenging for universities to determine whether the sub-agents are knowledgeable and trained, as well as for students to understand who they are collaborating with.

We want students to understand that salespeople are not identical as school counselors when it comes to the openness of commission payments, according to Jacqui Jenkins, worldwide program lead for global student mobility at the British Council. Agents, as opposed to school guidance counselors, have a stake in the university the students choose to attend. A British Universities’ Overseas Liaison Association (BUILA) study found that 24% of foreign pupils who employed an agent believed the agent was “biased towards certain universities.” More than 30% of the workers who responded to the poll agreed that “agents push pupils to where they get the highest commission rate”.

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