15 June 2016 12:01:26 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Ban commission-based student recruiting

Agents take undue advantage of an average Indian student’s desperation to land in the US

During the last 10 years, even as the number of Indian students entering foreign campuses has exploded, a practice that is frowned upon by most traditional academics is firmly taking roots — the practice of commission-based college recruiting.

Quite simply put, it enables colleges and universities in foreign countries to pay commissions to Indian agents and recommend (and recruit) students to apply to their schools. If the Indian student enters the said school and stays in it for a year, the agent gets a commission on the student’s first year fees.

Luxury trumps merit

If you don’t believe it, just browse through the education section (or even the front pages) of any major newspaper in India. During peak admission times, colourful ads from education consultants will bombard you, claiming to offer free counselling to universities in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Events are often held in plush hotels to convey a sense of luxury.

Walk into one of the slick travel-agency-styled offices and you will see attractive posters of college campuses, lush green meadows, Victorian-themed buildings with lakes and mountains as a backdrop. The goal is to attract students to apply without regard to the merit of the institution or the quality of education promised.

You don’t have to fill out an application form. All you have to do, is be physically present with your mark sheets. The agent does everything for you — and everything is free. You still do not have a degree? No problem. Don’t have recommendation letters (considered a critical component of a foreign graduate school application)? No worries, we can waive that requirement for you. And by the way, did we mention that no GRE/GMAT scores are required?

One student told me that she received provisional admission from a Canadian school within 24 hours of her visiting the Bangalore office of a recruiting agent, even before she had submitted her academic credentials. The email urged her to pay a non-refundable admissions fee to lock her place in class.

These agents aggressively recruit Indian students, largely motivated by the kickbacks that they receive, which can be as high as $3,000 per student. The universities that admit the students are almost always lower-tiered institutions, but unknowing students fall for these recruiting pitches nevertheless. Foreign sounding names, after all, have a special allure for Indians.

A global problem

In fact, this is a global problem. Relocate Magazine , in an article titled ‘International code of ethics for education agents’ reported that in April 2012, ‘roundtable’ discussions brought together representatives from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland (some of the most popular destinations for international students) to address the unethical or even illegal conduct of some international education agents which was “causing problems both for students and institutions and damaging the reputation of their profession”.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the conflict of interest here. When an agent promises you admission to a school and provides administrative support in filling out the application, you think you are merely getting valued service. But if the same agent also gets a commission from the school after you get in, several ethical questions arise.

Did the agent really act in your best interest (in helping place you at the best school you could get into) or did he place you in a mismatched school because he was motivated by commissions? Did the school really evaluate your application truthfully or simply award you admission knowing that you will pay the full tuition? If you had shopped around, could you have found a better agent who could have you placed at a better school, unrelated to the merit of your profile? Would the agent be willing to split his commission with you for your retaining him? Can anyone honestly say that such a practice improve returns on your educational investment?

Unethical practice

The Wisconsin State Journal said in an article that “the practice of paying commissions for each recruited international student is common yet controversial. It’s banned within the US but largely unregulated abroad”.

The New York Times explains that this practice was made illegal in the US 20 years ago because of widespread abuse by agents, who signed up anyone they could, regardless of academic potential.

In a stinging piece in April , the paper listed a Bangalore company, Study Metro, as offering so-called “spot admissions” or “spot assessments” to a variety of US universities. One of the universities listed was the well known University of Oklahoma. “Don’t miss the opportunity to fulfil your aspiring dream of studying in USA. Call now for FREE registration. First comes First served (sic).”

And the bait worked — dozens of students signed up. Except that the university was actually the University of Central Oklahoma — a place that most people even in the state of Oklahoma have never heard of! For the average Indian student desperate to land in the US, this fact makes no difference.

It is sad that international education has come down to this. The HRD Ministry must regulate this industry under threat of an outright ban, if things do not improve dramatically.