UK universities spend about £500 million on education agents to recruit international students according to the Big Issue report released on 20 September. These agents are paid on commission for each international student that they enlist and are responsible for about 50% of the international student population. In some countries such as China, these numbers reach as high as 70%.
Reportedly, agents have contracts with universities who pay their agents about 10% and 30% of students’ first-year fees as a “finder’s fee’.
The UK is the most popular destination for international students, with about 680,000 international students pursuing their degree according to Higher Education Statistics (HESA) from 2021/22. This number is a 12.3% increase from the previous year (2020/21). According to Vincenzo Raimo, an international higher education expert, education agents are “the middlemen and women who act as intermediaries between a prospective international student and a university.” They “help potential students consider their options, apply to university (UCAS has a separate agent portal), apply for visas and provide a pre-departure briefing.”
Reportedly, agents have contracts with universities who pay their agents about 10% and 30% of students’ first-year fees as a “finder’s fee’. The British Universities’ Liason Association (BUILA) reports that “more than 30% of surveyed staff agreed ‘agents push students to where they receive the highest commission rate.'”
At Exeter, a dedicated page for prospective students to find education agents, states, “the University has entered into a commercial arrangement with the following education agents, who are our official representatives.” The page further adds, “[students] can choose to use other education agents if you wish, but we spend resources training and helping these education agents listed [on the page].”
In agents for countries with high rates of international students (such as China), a large proportion of education agents are available.
Universities are using international student agents as international students are important to the “financial health of UK Universities”, says Raimo. At the University of Exeter, about 7,400 students as of 2022/23 are international students which is a 62% increase from five years ago.