The UK is spearheading an international crackdown on unscrupulous recruitment agents who help bogus overseas students who have no intention of studying to get visas.
The British Council has for the first time brought together countries including the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Irish Republic to share information and data about dishonest agents.
Pat Killingley, the British Council’s director of higher education, said countries need to work together as universities and colleges could not operate without agents and their role was likely to increase.
Universities say the majority of agents are legitimate and are an important way of finding overseas students but the Council says there are widespread concerns about dishonest agents who falsify documents and help people to get around the student visa system and as there is now a globalised market an international response is needed.
UK Immigration has recently strengthened the rules for UK Student Visas, even temporarily suspending applications from northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal due to a suspiciously sharp rise in applications.
Legitimate agents recruit for a commission, which can be worth several thousands of pounds per student, bringing overseas students to universities, colleges and language schools.
Four out of five UK universities use agents, according to the British Council, with many thousands of individual agents working in what is a growing business. But some dishonest agents advertise courses as a route to migration and claim to guarantee success in admission tests. Agents have also cheated honest applicants, who are misled into paying for courses at bogus colleges, which are nothing like the places that agents have described.
The British Council says agents have been caught passing off two room colleges as prestigious institutions. And, in some cases, overseas students have arrived with no one to meet them and nowhere to stay when they discover the colleges do not exist.
An inaugural meeting of English speaking countries has taken place in London and agreed to work together. ‘We have common interests and we’ve all built up reputations for quality in higher education that we want to protect,’ said Killingley.
Universities and colleges could not operate without agents, she said, and their role was likely to increase so it is vital that the small proportion of dishonest agents were stopped.
Countries will share information about dishonest agents and they will try to support legitimate agents, she said. There could also be a code of behaviour for what remains a largely unregulated market.
Financial pressures have made overseas students an increasingly important source of income for
universities and the wider economy in the UK with overseas students pay average fees of £9,000 per
year and bringing in £5.3 billion annually.
In Australia, there had been a concerted drive to recruit more overseas students but there has
also now been a shift to tighten entry rules.
In the US there have been ethical concerns about the use of agents. Reports in the US have
claimed that Chinese students have paid thousands of dollars each to agents to get a university
place with the university also paying a fee to the agents.
There are about 200,000 students from India and China alone in the United States – out of a total
of about 670,000 overseas students.
Last year, the UK government began to introduce a tougher visa system for overseas students.
This included a more rigorously vetted list of approved education providers, which aimed to
prevent bogus colleges. But instead of falling, the numbers of student visas issued in some
countries rose sharply.