Education agents are earning record commissions sourcing international students for UK universities, with one institution spending £28m on agent fees last year alone.
The figures obtained by the Observer give an insight into the lucrative student recruitment industry, which has grown rapidly amid a rise in international student numbers and increasing dependence by some universities on the income they provide. In the past year, just under 500,000 sponsored UK study visas were granted – 23% more than the year before, and double the number in 2019. A fifth of income received by UK universities now comes from international students, a recent Guardian analysis found.
Tuition fees charged to international students are higher than domestic fees, with the British Council estimating that international undergraduate students pay £22,000 a year on average, with postgraduate students paying even more.
To incentivise agents, some universities pay generous referral fees – typically either a flat rate per student or a percentage of the first year’s course fees. The figures from universities that provided data suggest the agents receive between £2,000 and £8,000 per student. A decade ago, the figure was estimated to be £1,000.
Data obtained by the Observer reveals that the University of Greenwich paid education agents more than £28.7m in 2022/ 23 – up from £18.3m in 2021/22 and £3.3m in 2017/18. The money went to 230 agencies and related to recruitment of 2,986 postgraduates and 500 undergraduates over the year.. The figures suggest the London university paid an average of £8,235 in agent fees per student.
Another university, De Montfort in Leicester, paid £17.1m in commission to agents last year – up from £10.5m in 2021/22. The payments related to 4,457 international students, suggesting the average per student was about £3,829 – up from £2,388 five years ago.
The spending was revealed through freedom of information requests to UK universities. Most refused to disclose their spending, citing commercial sensitivities, while others – typically the most prestigious ones, such as Oxford and Cambridge – said they did not work with education agents at all.
Of the 20 that supplied detailed figures, most reported a rise in spending – including Leeds Beckett, which spent £9.5m in 2022/23 compared with £871,000 five years ago, and Manchester Met, which spent £4m compared with £650,447.
Universities UK, which represents 142 institutions, said spending on agents had risen due to the growth in international students coming to the UK. “More students are choosing agents to help navigate the application, selection and visa processes,” it said, adding that most agents were “trusted and valuable partners” for universities, which had “rigorous processes” to “prevent abuse”.
But in the wider education sector, the reliance on agents has fuelled concerns about alleged unethical practice, including reports of agents directing students towards certain courses due to incentives. Kishore Dattu, general secretary of the Indian National Student Association, which represents Indian students in the UK, said: “Sometimes what the agent does is irrespective of whether it’s the right fit for the student. They even try to lure some students with offers, like: we’ll give you a laptop or a phone.”
Lord Jo Johnson, former universities minister, warned earlier this year that a key risk to universities’ licences was from “rogue agents”. Some gave students fake bank documents or “recycle the same funding” to help them circumvent visa regulations that require a minimum amount of savings, he said.
He called for the Office for Students to maintain a register of agents and publish performance data relating to visa refusals as well as course completion rates, broken down by agent. There is not currently any formal regulation of education agents operating in the UK, although agents can subscribe to an ethical code of practice. The British Council maintains a register and offers training
The universities identified in the Observer’s research all said they had stringent measures in place to ensure agents were operating ethically, and there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by intermediaries on their behalf. They cited a number of reasons for increased spend on agent fees, including a rise in student numbers driven by the introduction of the graduate visa route in 2019.
Greenwich said its surge in spending was a result of “significant growth” in international student numbers, which have risen 179% since 2019/20, “in addition to growth in students from inside the UK”, and that its base commission rates had not changed. It added that it worked closely with UK Visas and Immigration to ensure regulatory requirements were met and that its processes and agent partners were audited regularly.
De Montfort said agents supported overseas students with applications, visas and accommodation and were “essential” for building relationships with educational institutions abroad. It said fees paid to agents were “proportionate to student tuition fees”, which have risen for EU students. “This has naturally led to agents receiving more money,” it said. It added that it conducted “due diligence on all agents prior to issuing any contracts”, adding: “If the high standards we demand are not met, we will end the partnership.”
Leeds Beckett university said payments to agents were “commensurate with growth” in international student numbers, and “stringent measures” were in place to manage agent partnerships.
International students are estimated to have added £42bn to the UK economy in 2021/22, up from £31.3bn in 2018/19.
Source : The Guardian