Admission for a commission: recruitment agents

Part 1 of a 2-part series on the use and abuse of student agents in global university advising

“Counselor or Counsellor: adviser, instructor, tutor, mentor, advocate, guide”

We have witnessed quite an outcry, within college counselling and university advising, about foreign educational agents undermining and corrupting international student admission.

A preponderance of journal articles, speeches and editorials consistently condemn the commission-based methodology, the lack of training and the assumption of less than professional conduct by said agents or agencies. Further consternation is reserved for the price tag and the high fees associated with their activities.

My own interest in the ethical nature of all work associated with the field of college counseling led me to find this topic particularly intriguing. Such intrigue prompted me to ask a fundamental question and to wonder aloud about its implications.

What should and can be done about the growth and influence of foreign education agents?

Over the last couple of years, I have read a series of articles related to this vexing question. In 2012, I was contracted to counsel foreign students and train foreign college counsellors in China, the Middle East and in Latin America.  Consequently, I continued to observe and was privy to an up-close-and-personal, first-hand knowledge and experience with the education and work of counsellors versus the work of commission-based agents.

While all of my reading and seemingly most of my peer group spoke out strongly against the use of commission-based agents in US college admission, I observed their conduct live.

In July 2011, NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) produced their 'Statement on Incentive-Based Compensation for International Student Recruitment'. Despite the continued outcry in opposition to the influence of agents the NACAC statement left the ethical door wide open for a simple but ample justification of agents. It stated that NACAC “does not oppose the use of agents by institutions for international recruitment”.  

The issuance of that statement was followed by the NACAC Commission on International Student Recruitment Meeting, in March 2012. During that two-day event, representatives of five nations (USA, China, UK, Australia and Canada) met during three panel sessions. There they made observations, addressed mutual challenges, and discussed positions and planned subsequent research. However, in a review of the thematic/topical bullet points from that two-day event there was one glaring omission. The work of the commission resulted in no real progress and lacked any suggestion of a strong and vigorous condemnation of the influence of agents in international student recruitment. 

Thus, in the face of a raging controversy and a loud professional debate, NACAC still could not provide a simple and sound reason why international student recruitment by paid agents amounts to a form of 'student trafficking' and should be condemned. Instead, NACAC decided to kick the ethical can down the road.

That, of course, led me to ask another question and to wonder why?

A closer reading of the bulleted points from the July forum indicates that the people involved in the discussion chose to try and control agents and recommended harnessing their activities rather than try and eliminate the practice outright.


“Those questions were followed by a real intellectual kicker: is there something intrinsic to incentive compensation that makes it more susceptible to abuse?”

The bulleted points simply attempted to intellectualize a moral argument.

  • Should agents be allowed?
  • Should agents be regulated?
  • How should agents be compensated?
  • Is this just too big an issue and too complex to control?
  • Do international students need agents?
  • Are the services provided by such agents needed by colleges and universities? How? Why?

Those questions were followed by a real intellectual kicker, 'is there something intrinsic to incentive compensation that makes it more susceptible to abuse?'

And that kick in the head inspired further investigation on what other countries are doing or NOT doing about the scourge of higher education agents. The information was not hard to find.

In July 2012, The Telegraph, in a piece written by Graeme Paton (Education Editor) revealed that “Foreign Recruitment Agents were paid 66 million pounds in fees by universities in the UK to attract students to Britain”. 

That alone had to make one wonder! Who is serving who in the best interest of students, the schools or the ethos of international student guidance and advising? And more importantly, how is this ethical distortion explained?

One answer can be found in the philosophy and tenets associated with situation (or selective) ethics.