Universities offer generous referral fees, estimated to range between £2,000 and £8,000 per student
UK universities are spending millions on agent fees to attract international students, according to a report.
This trend sheds light on the lucrative student recruitment industry, which has expanded rapidly, driven by the increasing reliance of some universities on income generated by international students, the Observer reported.
Latest figures revealed that just under 500,000 sponsored UK study visas were granted in the past year, marking a 23 per cent increase from the previous year and double the number in 2019.
According to the report, the rise in international student numbers has become a significant source of income for UK universities, with around a fifth of their revenue now originating from these students.
To incentivise agents, universities offer generous referral fees, estimated to range between £2,000 and £8,000 per student.
The University of Greenwich, for instance, reportedly paid over £28.7 million in agent fees in the academic year 2022/23, a substantial increase from previous years. De Montfort University in Leicester also spent £17.1m on agent fees.
However, concerns have been raised about potential unethical practices within the education sector, including allegations that agents may direct students toward certain courses due to incentives.
The reliance on agents has prompted calls for increased regulation, with Lord Jo Johnson, former universities minister, warning about the risks posed by “rogue agents” earlier this year.
Lord Johnson even suggested that some may provide fake documents or manipulate funding to help students circumvent visa regulations.
Despite the concerns, Universities UK, representing 142 institutions, attributes the rise in spending to the growing number of international students choosing agents to navigate the application, selection, and visa processes. They emphasise that most agents are trusted partners for universities, and institutions have rigorous processes in place to prevent abuse.
Kishore Dattu of the Indian National Student Association expressed concerns about agents offering incentives to students, including laptops or phones, irrespective of whether the suggested course is the right fit for the student.
Calls have been made for the Office for Students to maintain a register of agents and publish performance data relating to visa refusals and course completion rates.
While there is currently no formal regulation of education agents in the UK, universities maintain that they have stringent measures in place to ensure ethical operations. They attribute increased spending on agent fees to the introduction of the graduate visa route in 2019 and a subsequent rise in student numbers.
The economic impact of international students is substantial, with an estimated £42 billion added to the UK economy in the 2021/22 academic year, up from £31.3bn in 2018/19.