The University of Farmington sting has once again highlighted the perils Indian students face in the process of applying to foreign universities via unregulated agents. While in this case the students were already in the US and were lured into a “pay to stay” scam by Indian-origin recruiters, previous cases such as the Tri-Valley University scam in 2011 highlight the dangers posed by unscrupulous agents based in India.
India is the second largest outbound student market after China, with Indian government estimates indicating that more than 500,000 students were studying abroad in 86 countries in 2017. Since the numbers of Indians seeking to study abroad show no signs of diminishing, it is imperative that the Government of India prioritizes implementing certain regulations and accreditation mechanisms on education agents operating within the country. The proposal in the Draft Emigration Bill of 2019 to register, monitor, rate and permit operation of recruitment and enrollment agencies while encouraging self-regulation, is therefore a welcome step. Additionally, at the state level, the Government of Punjab is planning to introduce new regulations on agents within the state to prevent exploitation by fraudulent agents and curb illegal immigration. They have held discussions with the Canadian Ministry for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, as well as the British Council for the same.
In the context of higher education, primarily, such measures are necessary to ensure students’ security of status once they travel outside of the country. Additionally, given how agent driven the Indian market is, implementing regulations on agents will provide foreign universities increased confidence and incentive to recruit from India –since they too face reputational and regulatory risk when operating with unscrupulous agents. By preventing fraudulent agent activity, regulations will also help prevent diplomatic rows between governments regarding the treatment of Indian nationals caught up in these scams.
1)The Current Regulatory Landscape: Industry level Self- Regulation
Globally, finding reliable agents is a continuing problem for universities. A study by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) and Intead in 2018 revealed that 63% of the participating universities felt that it was difficult to find agents who were ethical and trustworthy. While it is important to note that a large number of agents in India are organized and adhere to standards set by governments and universities of destination countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada etc.), there are a number of bad actors who damage the reputation of both the universities, and of India’s business environment. Before delving into the various processes adopted by governments, it is important to acknowledge that agents in various countries tend to come together and self-regulate in order to mitigate reputational risks to their industry and for their clients. In particular, this is common in countries where regulations are seen as lax or are not present. For example, in Brazil, the Brazilian Education and Language Travel Association (BELTA) is the largest international education association and claims to represent over 90% of the operators in the Brazilian market. BELTA has its own code of conduct and ethics that all member organizations must adhere to. In Thailand the Thai International Education Consultants Association (TIECA) performs a similar role. Within India itself, agent bodies such as the Association of Australian Education Representatives in India (AAERI) ensure that standards set by the destination market are met, and that member agent operations are above board and up to date with the latest standards and methods. Additionally, of the current total of 80 American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) certified agents, 45% have headquarters and primary operations in India.
Beyond country level agencies, the industry at large has many private international regulatory bodies working at setting global best practices. ICEF GmBH (International Consultants for Education and Fairs) is one of the foremost global bodies which convenes B2B events in all markets, publishes a newsletter providing business development and market intelligence insights, conducts quality screenings of agents, and conducts agent training courses specific to various markets, among other services provided. The Federation of Education and Language Consultant Associations (FELCA) is another major global body, with member businesses from Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Europe, France, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Mauritius, Russia, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. FELCA works as a collective discussion forum, and all members must fulfill the requirements set out in FELCA’s Accreditation Code.
There is thus an industry tendency to establish procedures and standards even in the absence of governmental regulations, indicating that well designed regulations at the governmental level would be a welcome step for agents and businesses as it will mitigate operational and reputational risks within the sector.
2) The Current Regulatory Landscape: Government Approaches in Outbound Markets
In the process of designing and implementing agent regulations, there are various models India can refer to. Different models exist in outbound student markets and destination markets. Among outbound markets, the following countries provide interesting insights-
- China: Among outbound student markets, China has the strongest regulations in place on education agents. Each agent requires a license, and newcomers to the field must operate under a sub-license. Earlier, agencies required licenses from each province they operated in and had to adhere to each province’s guidelines. Now, provincial licensing has been abolished, though central licensing is still required. All students using an agent must sign a nationally registered contract. There is only one contract per student, and these strictly enforced contracts detail the terms of the engagement and include a price for services. In addition to governmental bodies, a number of Chinese agents are affiliated to the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA) and the China Overseas Study Service Alliance (COSSA), which themselves work as affiliates of government bodies. BOSSA and COSSA work to train, guide, and evaluate education agencies according to both Chinese government policies, and international standards. Most agents operating in China are affiliated with BOSSA and COSSA.
- Vietnam: From 2013 to 2016, Vietnam used to operate under a more regulated framework that required agents giving direct advice on overseas education to have a university degree or higher, fluency in at least one foreign language and a certificate granted by the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET). In addition, agencies had to demonstrate sufficient financial capacity by having a minimum deposit of VND 500 million (about US$22,400 then) – per office – in a commercial bank. Local Departments of Education and Training (DoETs) would administer the training program, which consisted mainly of lectures, and overseeing the certification process via a final exam. In 2016 however, the government eliminated these restrictions in order to make the market less restricted. This has resulted in greater ease of entering the agent market, but consumers and universities must once again be wary of who they choose to engage with.
3)The Current Regulatory Landscape: Government Approaches in Destination Markets
In addition to outbound market countries regulating agents on the ground, destination market countries also require universities and their agents to adhere to certain guidelines when recruiting international students. Since India is looking to feature itself as a destination for quality education in the long term, and is currently a major education destination for its neighbors and African nations, it is important for the government to study and analyze how current destination markets operate. One of the most significant recent developments in global agent regulation is the signing of the London Statement. The London Statement or the “Statement of Principles for the Ethical Recruitment of International Students by Education Agents and Consultants” is a high level statement of principles for international student recruitment, agreed to by the governments of the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to the London Statement guidelines, the following examples highlight how regulation of agents takes place in key markets—
- UK: Education agents within the United Kingdom are not typically regulated, unless they are providing immigration advice. All entities providing immigration advice and services must comply with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner’s (OISC) Code of Standards, and employ advisors whose applications have been accepted by the OISC. Outside of the UK, universities seeking to recruit international students are themselves required to provide regulation and guidelines to the agents they employ. Each UK university has its own policies and procedures, framework for relationships and commission rates. There is no national framework or rules governing the way universities work with agents in the UK. The British Council, the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK Council for International Student Affairs all provide some guidance on the use of agents.
- US: In the United States, the use of agents has only recently become widely accepted, as dipping enrollment rates have made US universities realize the value of agent partnerships. However, long standing skepticism over predatory agent behavior remains. Interestingly, efforts to regulate the agent industry have not been government driven. The university community established The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) in 2008 to provide a set of best practice standards for recruiting foreign students. It is important to note that the AIRC is not a government body, but an independent regulator set up by universities and other higher education institutions, and thus an industry attempt at self -regulation. Agents are declared compliant through a detailed review and certification process. US universities and families of applicants are encouraged to work only with AIRC certified agents, as this will create pressure to operate under admissions and enrollment standards that professional associations and accreditors in the United States have endorsed.
- Australia: Australia provides one of the strongest frameworks to protect the rights of incoming overseas students. Under the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS)Act and subsequent legislation, students are provided with various rights, and various rules are laid out for all CRICOS (Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students) certified institutions (universities and technical and further education providers) in order to permit them to recruit international students- one of which is to list all the agents they use on their websites, and establish strict codes of conduct for their dealings . In addition, ESOS has established an agent monitoring mechanism via the International Education Agents Data Project, which has established PRISMS: the Provider Registration and International Management System which has enabled institutions to record the involvement of an agent in enrolling an international student. The department reviews the data and develops institution-based reports on the student enrolment outcomes achieved by the institutions agents, to assist institutions to assess the performance of their agents. In addition, agents must comply with the ethical standards set out in the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students-2018 (these are in line with the London Statement).
- New Zealand: In 2018, New Zealand introduced the “New Zealand Education Strategy 2018–2030”, in which it announced a revamped agent recognition program- the Education New Zealand Recognized Agency program (ENZRA). Under this program, agencies within New Zealand are required to have a permanent Licensed Immigration Advisor within their agency. Meanwhile, overseas agents need to meet three core standards on an annual basis to gain or retain Recognized Agency status. These are:
- A points target and minimum visa approval rate
- Core conduct requirements
- Undertaking training as required.
In addition, all Recognized Agencies will have to comply with the Education New Zealand Code of Conduct and Complaints Process. The Code of Conduct is based on the principles of the London Statement, and Recognized Agencies must affirm their commitment to upholding the statement. Additionally, Recognized Agencies are contractually obligated to not conduct themselves in any way that is detrimental to ENZ, education providers, or the New Zealand education industry.
There are thus multiple ways in which India can go about regulating agents within its borders, as well as provide for its students studying abroad. Some of the proposals in the Draft Emigration Bill- 2019 are a good start towards that process as they mandate that students and workers abroad register with the government, and call for setting up an accreditation mechanism for agents. However, these measures need to be made as specific as possible to ensure student safety and agent compliance. Additionally, the process should be a collaborative one, involving consultations with the various governments, embassy officials of major destination countries and existing agents. This will ensure that the Government of India’s regulations align with global best practices. These measures will first and foremost ensure student and worker safety abroad, and also help boost the International Education industry in India by helping Indian agents achieve high levels of compliance, and thus reliability and more business. A well thought out and collaborative approach towards education agent regulation will be beneficial for India on multiple fronts, however as always, the devil is in the detail and the implementation.
Authored by Kaajal Joshi, Lakshmi Iyer, Delia Heneghan, Krista Northup and Zoe Marlow at Sannam S4.