21 Aug 2018 21:13 IST

Studying abroad is now more business and less education

Many institutions resort to aggressive marketing; some seem to care little about the candidate’s merit

For the United States, welcoming international students — especially from India, China and West Asia — is not just a matter of adding diversity to its campuses and promoting international understanding. Higher education is a crucial export engine, generating over $35 billion for the economy.

Universities in Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand also rely on international students to make ends meet. Sometimes, however, their pursuit of Indian students conflicts with the laws of the land, such as when the UK recently excluded India from preferential treatment for student visas.

But if you think the entire system is based on a passive approach, in which interested students contact individual universities for information and then apply to them, you’ve just not been keeping up. Aggressive push marketing is at the heart of practically every institution’s outreach strategy. The approach is no different from that of any company peddling its wares. Targeted ads online and in social media; event sponsorships such as hackathons; direct mail marketing and tuition ‘discounts’ are all designed to attract students to enrol in the institution’s higher education courses.

Separate recruiting departments

Universities have become so aggressive that it is common for them to now have a separate department devoted to international student recruiting. Linden Educational Services, a Bethesda, MD company specialises in organising such recruiting tours. Its website says it has conducted more than 230 tours around the globe and counts over 600 colleges as its clients. The travel schedule for the recruiting staff resembles that of senior diplomats — covering multiple countries on a single tour, staying at five-star hotels, meeting students and promoting their programmes.

A tour of India, starting next Sunday, lists Delhi, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Goa, Hyderabad and Bangalore among the cities to be visited.

What is surprising is not that these tours take place but the ‘quality’ of the schools that participate in them. If you thought America’s best colleges are coming for you in these tours, you’re mistaken. Many of the colleges and universities that participated in past tours are relatively unknown even in the United States, such as the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Alma College, Augustana College, Felician College, Foothill and De Anza Colleges, High Point University, Keystone College, Roger Williams University and Salve Regina University.

As these institutions are accredited, they are actively aided by the US government in their cause. The US Department of State runs an agency called Education USA, which has offices in all corners of the globe including many in India. Working with US embassy offices (such as the US Educational Foundation in India), Education US actively markets US educational institutions to foreign students. (To be sure, USEFI and Education US also promote world-class programmes such as the Fulbright scholar exchange).

Institutions from the EU rely on the Erasmus and Erasmus Mundus programmes, which promote EU institutions to non-Europeans. DAAD is the German government’s exchange programme, one of the largest in the world. The goal is to promote German universities to an international clientele.

Commission basis

Many international institutions also rely on commission-based recruiters, a practice frowned upon by most traditional academics, to sign up unsuspecting students. The practice is rampant in big Indian cities such as Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Pune. The recruiting agencies represent lower-tiered universities from the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and the UK.

Simply put, this practice enables colleges and universities in foreign countries to pay commissions to agents in India, China and other countries to recommend (and recruit) students to apply to their schools. If the international student enters the said institution and stays in it for a year, the agent gets a commission on the student’s first year fees.

The deal is almost always the same. A student walks in to a recruiting agent’s office prompted by full-page ads taken out in newspapers or through word-of-mouth referrals. The agent asks just for a few details and promises the student admission to a list of universities with fancy sounding names — like the University of Central Missouri or Wright State University.

One Bangalore-based agent for Thompson Rivers University in Canada promised a student provisional admission within 24 hours — and true enough, by the time the student reached home, she had an email from the agent forwarded directly from Thompson Rivers University:

“Please find a copy of the pre-acceptance letter for your student. I have also included other important information for the student to review.”

Lack of merit

For these universities, a student’s lack of merit is no cause for concern. Students who have backlogs (but cleared them); who refuse to take competitive exams; who refuse to submit statements of purpose or essays are all welcome. The only factor that matters is the students’ willingness and ability to pay hefty international tuition fees. Meanwhile, the agents are minting cash, with commissions as high as $3,000 per student.

The practice of compensating counsellors for student referrals is illegal in the United States. But it works freely outside its borders because the arm of US law doesn’t extend abroad. It also works because everyone in the game stands to benefit — or so it seems — when the student proudly receives a quick offer of admission from the school.

If you’re an international student, how can you be aware of which universities employ recruiting agencies so that you can avoid them? One trick is to consult the AIRC, an industry-group of universities which advocates this practice. A quick look at some of the members of this group — Adelphi University (NY), Antioch University Los Angeles (CA), Arkansas State University, Campus Queretaro (AR), Ashland University (OH), and Baldwin Wallace University (OH) — shows that these universities will not likely make the rankings of the best schools any time soon.


It is sad that international education has come down to this and the ramifications are being felt around the world. As governments tighten policies about who can stay back and work after graduation, the stress on students is immense as they try to differentiate among themselves to chase a limited pool of jobs. (Many companies refuse to hire candidates unless they can show proof of citizenship or permanent resident status). In the UK, students are given 60 days to find a job which pays a threshold amount set by law — and if they can’t, they are forced to leave. In the US, the rules are identical although there are no salary thresholds.

But for tens of thousands of students, these roadblocks don’t seem to limit their pursuit of international education. They share a kindred spirit that is exciting and infectious as they decide to approach foreign shores first and figure out their future course of action later. Hope, after all, is a powerful motivator for human behaviour.