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US and Australia Usher in New Agent Guidelines

In moves that are sure to be closely watched throughout the industry, two of the world's top destinations for international students are in the midst of shaking up how their education providers work with international recruitment agents.

Driven by increased interest in internationalisation and intense competition at home and abroad, American universities are taking their first coordinated steps toward more direct working relationships with international agents. Meanwhile, growing quality control and consumer protection concerns in Australia have led to a strengthening of that country's legislative guidelines for education providers in their dealings with recruitment agents.

A relatively new association of US universities—the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC)—has announced an ambitious agent certification scheme modelled on the very system used to accredit US universities. The AIRC model represents the first concerted effort to engage American universities with recruitment agents. While ESL institutes and other tertiary institutes in the US have long worked with agents the practice is hardly widespread among universities in the States.

Historically, there has been some controversy in the US around the question of universities working with recruitment agents. However, any ethical concerns among US educators have largely faded in the face of a growing body of opinion that asserts the appropriateness and importance of working with qualified agents for international recruitment. Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs of the State University of New York and Chair of the AIRC, is a leading voice on this issue in the US. "There is no question so far as I can tell about the ethics of working with agents," says Leventhal. "The ethical issues relate to (i) poor practice among inexperienced and in some cases dishonest agents and (ii) educational institutions who are more concerned with 'bums on seats' and revenue than maintaining educational quality and assuring a positive experience for the student. Both issues can be easily addressed."

The AIRC certification model is one such strategy for dealing with the question of standards of practice among educators and agents, and it goes well beyond any agent accreditation system the international education industry has seen before. The AIRC model is based on a rigorous assessment process for all applicants that includes the preparation of a detailed application dossier, a due diligence assessment by an external firm, an extensive self-evaluation/self-study process during which the applicant both furthers and demonstrates its knowledge of the US system, an external review and site visit by AIRC assessors, and a public call for comments on the agency's application. The process can take up to nine months from beginning to end. The AIRC's independent Certification Board votes on the applicant's candidacy at specified milestones during the review process, and only after the agency has successfully met all requirements can certification be granted.

Once certified, agents are required to maintain a high standard of practice in order to maintain their standing and the AIRC model provides for active ongoing monitoring and evaluation of all certified agencies.

To date, eight agencies have completed the AIRC certification process and indications are that interest among agents is strong. The pilot group of agents that have earned AIRC certification—including IEC Online and Study Overseas UK—often function as extensive placement networks in their own right as opposed to a single referral office.

"We have seen rapid take-off among agents," says Leventhal. "We have approximately two dozen agents who are in some part of the certification process now (in addition to the original pilot group of eight). These have all come on since early December. Our main concern is keeping up with market demand [and] scaling the process."

The AIRC certification programme is likely to have far-reaching implications for the international recruitment programmes of US higher education institutions. There are no restrictions on who AIRC-certified agents work with—they may represent both AIRC members as well as non-member institutions. As a result, AIRC anticipates that most US institutions who choose to work with agents will naturally gravitate toward certified agencies.

Leventhal adds, "In the longer term, this trend will lead to much more sophisticated and coordinated state level and national recruitment strategies, as the US organises to get serious about the export of educational services. Many of us in positions to influence events plan on doing everything in our power to grow US international education very substantially in the coming years. The AIRC certification process is a major mechanism which will enable this growth."

While the AIRC's certification model reflects a broader move to self-regulation and standards development among international educators in the US, recent developments in Australia have been driven more by government intervention. The Australian international education sector has a long history of leadership and self-regulation in areas of industry standards, certification, and agent training. However, concerned by recent quality control issues and related negative press, the Australian government has moved to strengthen the legislation for its international education programmes with a special Amendment Bill. This bill introduces a number of new requirements for Australian education providers, including new standards of practice for working with international agents.

There are a few provisions in the new legislation that have drawn particular attention, including requirements that Australian educators publish lists of their authorised agents, that agents be required to complete professional training courses—the PIER Education Agent Training Course in particular—and that agents be required to join professional associations in their home countries.

Australian standards of practice in this area are largely guided by the National Code of Practice for Registration Authorities and Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students. Australian educators are required by law to comply with the National Code, which effectively requires that education providers only work with qualified, reputable agents.

It seems likely that the recent Amendment Bill will result in revisions to the National Code to account for the government's new requirements regarding the publication of agent names and increased agent training requirements. At this writing, however, the question of how best to implement the Amendment Bill remains under discussion in Australia. Proponents of the strengthened regulations argue that publication of the names of authorised agents, increased training requirements, and stronger professional affiliations for agents will lead to greater accountability in educator-agent relationships and greater quality controls throughout the Australian system. Opponents points out that the guidelines place additional demands on international agents and may discourage referrals to Australian institutions.

As this debate plays out, it illustrates the potentially far-reaching effects of both the Australian and American initiatives. The AIRC certification programme will engage agents with American higher education institutions on an unprecedented scale. In so doing, it is likely to strengthen the competitive position of the US and draw additional students to American campuses.

The new Australian legislation could potentially have a similar effect but it remains to be seen how more rigorous standards for agents will influence Australia's position in international markets in the long term.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that national initiatives on this scale—whether driven by the industry or by government—will help shape the competitive landscape in international education markets in the years ahead.

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