Education agents: separating the mythology from the reality

phone studentDigital native students all over the world can receive information online, can monitor league tables and can of course apply unassisted to university. Yet, how many students in the United Kingdom or United States apply without the guidance of a high school counsellor or sixth form tutor? It is almost unthinkable that any student should apply without guidance and support.

International students studying outside their home country use agents and education counsellors to help select their future study options – a pattern evident even in the most sophisticated Asian markets like Japan, Korea and Taiwan where all students have permanent online access. Why? Because the choice is bewildering and students who are non-native speakers of English find the process of dealing with overseas universities complex and intimidating.

Each year, INTO joint venture centres admit upwards of 5000 students – of whom 73% apply with the assistance of an agent. In our latest survey of newly enrolling students, we discovered 93% of students who used an agent rated the quality of advice and support as good or very good – yet only 1% rated the service as very poor.

At INTO, we conduct an annual survey of almost 700 agents. These range from publicly traded organisations in China sending upwards of 20,000 students overseas each year to independent counsellors guiding no more than 15 students in their overseas study options. Some highlights from our latest survey below.

Who influences students – an agent perspective?

No surprises to learn that parents’ role in determining student study plans is significant for younger students and diminishes considerably as the student progresses. But so do does the agency counsellor’s influence. For postgraduate study, the students themselves are clear about what they want to do, so will use an agent to help validate that decision and navigate the application.

Key decision makers in international education


How much has a student decided prior to visiting an agent?

What we discover is that while most students have already decided on which country they wish to study in, much smaller numbers have fixed ideas on particular institutions – the role of the counsellor then becomes vital. Only 12% of agents surveyed indicated that most of their students had already decided on the institution.

Some students have already decided what they want before approaching an educational agent


Quality of service is key to a strong agency relationship

Education counsellors, who are working with demanding counsellors prize service quality – including speed of response and the quality of support from their clients as the two most important factors in their organisation – significantly more important than the availability of scholarships or other fiscal incentives. At INTO, we prioritise this support – with 77 staff based in 28 offices around the world, providing regular training, quality monitoring and support to our agent network.

Factors that are important to agents


What have we learned?

Much has been written and published over the last twelve months on the role of agents in counselling students for overseas study – on whether they are a positive or malign influence , how best to regulate their use – and perhaps less on what is really important. What systems and processes do institutions have in place to monitor the quality of applications they receive – either agent mediated or independent.

Students do use agents – and for the most part their experience is positive. So long as the agents are carefully selected, properly supported and appropriately managed, they can add value.

There are three golden rules:

  1. The responsibility for admitting students of appropriate quality and calibre should never be outsourced. While it is eminently sensible to extend global reach through the use of recruitment networks, institutions must satisfy themselves that the network is appropriately resourced, managed and quality controlled. This should not be a by-product of an annual review of agency contracts, but ideally with a constant in market presence.
  2. Institutions should take every opportunity to manage international student expectations – harnessing the power of social media to present an accurate picture of study in their institution – ensuring their representative network is well trained and ideally have had the opportunity to visit your institution in person. High quality agents who have built their reputations on sound counselling have as much to lose by poor student feedback as institutions.
  3. Robust and transparent admissions processes are vital to ensure only students of the appropriate calibre are admitted.
Tim O'Brien

Author: Tim O'Brien

Tim is Vice President, Global Partner Development, INTO University Partnerships

3 thoughts on “Education agents: separating the mythology from the reality

  1. Interesting study Tim.  It would be interesting to know what are the main influencers for parents!

  2. Well done, I appreciate the succinct golden rules. The UK educational system is considerably more rational in managing and treating the agent recruiting method than the emotional debate in the United State.  

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