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Renewing Canada’s IES - Proposed pillar: The conduct of education agents and ethics in international student recruitment

Published on March 1, 2023

Overview

International students make significant contributions to the Canadian economy. In 2020, the sector contributed over $22.7 billion to the Canadian economy and supported over 192,498 jobs. Furthermore, international students play an important role in building up Canada`s pipeline of talent for the knowledge economy of the future, addressing current labour gaps, supporting Canadian education institutions and the local communities where they reside.  

Education agents/consultants are a key component in the mobility of international students and can be valuable assets in efforts to attract a diverse cohort of international students. However, the unethical practices of some education agents used by certain Canadian educational institutions pose a direct risk to Canada's reputation as a provider of high-quality education services. The dependence of Canadian institutions on education agents rose during the pandemic when travel restrictions forbade travel of recruiters from travelling abroad. Institutions reverted to using local agents to a greater degree and reverting to existing markets. 

Further complicating this issue has been the emergence of education agent aggregators, fast-growing ICT companies that act as intermediaries between a multitude of institutions and an army of subcontracted in-market agents, further obscuring the institution-agent relationship and overall transparency. With the aggregators acting as middle-men, there is no longer a contractual relationship between agents and institutions. As a result, agents now charge prospective students “Advising” fees – a practice which was previously discouraged by most institutions. This advising fee model has led to a lack of quality control with respect to study permit applications, resulting in a huge increase in applications from students who have no chance of being approved for a Study Permit, increasing IRCC workloads and contributing to the backlogs in the system, negatively impacting genuine, high-quality prospective students. With nearly 50% of all international students in Canada referred by an agent, the issue has risen to prominence recently and is regarded as a key vulnerability to Canada's international education sector. ​ 

The current approach in Canada  

At the federal level, there is currently no collective policy on education agents, with no accreditation system or formal endorsement of any education agents, nor is there any legislation, policy or guidelines that apply to how institutions can work with education agents. On the immigration side, however, accredited immigration representatives are authorized to charge fees to represent or provide advice on Canada’s immigration process (section 91 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act), making it illegal for any education agent without this accreditation from providing direct immigration advice to prospective international students. The licensing of immigration representatives occurs through the regulatory College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CICC). Nevertheless, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in its recent report on The Differential Treatment in Recruitment and Acceptance Rates of Foreign Students in Quebec and the Rest of Canada (May 2022) cited the lack of effective regulation and oversight of education agents in its recommendation to IRCC to regulate recruiters in the IE sector by working with provinces, territories and designated learning institutions (DLI).  To note that in its formal response to the Parliament Committee report, IRCC accepted partially or in full all the recommendations suggested in the report.  

At the provincial/territorial level, Manitoba is the only jurisdiction within Canada which regulates how educational institutions work with education agents, and more broadly the only one to regulate the industry through legislation protecting international students. This is codified in their International Education Act (IEA) of 2016 and an accompanying Ministerial Code of Practice and Conduct Regulation that applies to education institutions, staff recruiters and contracted agents alike. Under this regulation, all education institutions designated to enroll international students must ensure transparency, accuracy and availability of all relevant informationFootnote 1, admission of qualified students only, institutional obligations regarding their recruiters, formalization and transparency of all institution-agent relationships, responsibility for agent conduct, support services for international students and mechanisms for complaint and dispute resolution. Enforcement for non-compliance can result in escalating sanctions up to and including the removal of the institution's name from the DLI list. 

In terms of implementation, the province has published a Guide to the Code of Practice & Conduct Regulation (2016) and Handbook for Meeting the Designation Requirements (2016) on their website to make clear to designated institutions their regulatory obligations, and through the International Student-dedicated section of the provincial website they provide clear information to international students on their protections through these regulations. Furthermore, to oversee, monitor and enforce compliance, the province has created a Director of International Students position through the IEA who receives notice of any terminated education agent agreements, reviews each institution’s annual reports on the status of their enrolled international student body, all fees charged to international students, any change in course programming and the right to request any additional information. In addition, the director has the right to inspect any institution`s premises and international student records, and authorization to launch a formal evaluation of any designated institution with a breach in compliance initiating a process that can lead to the abovementioned sanctions removing the designation to enrol international students. 

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Advanced Education launched the Saskatchewan Agent Training Program, which provides training to international recruitment agents to ensure prospective students receive a high-quality service and are supported with the necessary resources during their decision-making process. Delivered by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), agents build their knowledge to further support and provide information to prospective students when choosing Saskatchewan as a post-secondary education destination. To date, 6 or 7 cohorts of agents have completed the training.  

At the sectoral level, the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) has developed its own Code of Ethical Practice (2013) to provide ethical guidelines for its members, including a commitment to transparency in student recruitment and due diligence in working with agents. Written agreement with the Code is a condition of membership in the association. In response to changes in the sector since 2013, CBIE is currently undertaking a collaborative, consensus-based process to update this code through consultations with senior internationalization officers and a broad cross-section of Canadian institutions.  

Additionally, in partnership with CBIE, EduNova has launched one module (“Level 1”) for an agent training program. This is Nova Scotia’s first program dedicated to training overseas student recruitment agents and will ensure that agents are well-informed about options for post-secondary study in Nova Scotia and are equipped to provide high-quality seamless support to prospective international students. The Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) delivers the training online through self-paced courses. The content includes information on the Canadian education system, the post-secondary

options available in Nova Scotia, as well as the immigration pathways that are available to students. In addition to completing the online courses, agents tour Nova Scotian institutions to better understand the post-secondary education choices within the province. Agents who complete the program are issued a certificate upon graduation from the program. To date, 32 agents completed the program and there are 25 currently on the waiting list to take the training.

In addition, Languages Canada and the Canadian Association of Public Schools International (CAPS-I) offer the Canada Course for Education Agents, administered by International Consultants for Education and Fairs (ICEF) and supported by Universities Canada and Colleges & Institutes Canada. The development of this course was originally financed by Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and the course provides education agents with relevant information on Canada as a study destination, including the study options available, and tips on application and student preparation stages. ICEF also publishes a list of all the graduates of their Canada Course and accessible, detailed information on each graduating agent and their education agency around the world.  

At the local level, a best practice can be seen in the Brampton Charter for Improving the International Student experience. Drafted and adopted by Sheridan College in conjunction with the City of Brampton, this charter outlines a series of goals and accountability measures that include a goal of “upholding ethical recruitment standards and practices” through accurate, comprehensive information to applicants, streamlined application processes for prospective students, a public database of unethical agents, consistent financial policies for international students and a commitment to share data collected on the local international student population including their changing demographics, enrolment patterns and student needs. As an ethical framework without legal authority or oversight, implementation is predicated on signatories’ willingness to self-report, share their data and incorporate the Charter into their own policies. For instance, Sheridan College has a section of their website for prospective international students with comprehensive, accessible information on how to apply, admission requirements, programming options, fees, life as a student, the support services and all other student resources as well as another section dedicated to providing information to education agents on institutional policy and how to apply for an agent agreement with Sheridan. 

International best practices (The London Statement, Australia, New Zealand and the UK)  

In 2012 several of our closest competitors in international education - the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, issued the London Statement, a joint statement of principles for ethical student recruitment (see principles in Annex A). GAC attended meetings to develop the statement of principles for the London Statement, but Canada did not sign the statement, as there was no clear consensus on this issue between the Federal and the provincial governments, as to enforcement measures.  

Building off this statement and preexisting legislation, Australia and New Zealand have both taken a centralized high regulation approach through national codes of practice that not only regulate education agent conduct, student recruitment and institutional accountability but comprehensively codify ethical standards across their international education sectors. In contrast, the United Kingdom has taken a light regulation approach with a non-binding national code of ethical practice along with “best practice guides” that are disseminated to institutions for their own self-regulation.   

In Australia, there is the National Code of Practice for Providers of Education and Training to Overseas Students (2018), the Agent Code of Ethics (2016), and publication of education agent performance data. Based directly off the London Statement, ACE provides a guide to the expected conduct of

individual agents and agencies working with international students and institutions and provides a set of Australian specific standards for education agents. All education agents under agreement with Australian education providers must have knowledge of ACE as a requirement of the National Code of Practice, which further details the responsibilities of institutions to recruit responsibly and ensure their agents act ethically while upholding Australia`s reputation in education. In addition to the standards around agent conduct and student recruitment, compliance with all 12 other standards of the National Code is a requirement for education providers to maintain their eligibility to enroll international students. To improve transparency, not only must institutions formalize agreements with, and register their

education agents but the department of education publishes data on agent performance that tracks the student enrolment and visa outcomes for each agent to enable better informed decision-making amongst prospective students and affiliated institutions.

In New Zealand there is the Education (Pastoral Care of Tertiary and International Learners) Code of Practice (2021, original 2016). More thorough and prescriptive than its Australian counterpart, the Code of Practice specifies and regulates the practices and standards of care all education institutions must meet to enroll international students. This includes a requirement to actively manage and monitor all affiliated education agents and a duty to terminate any relation based on a “balance of probabilities” assessment of agent misconduct. The Code of Practice is administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) with the legal authority to investigate breaches of the code and impose sanctions on violating institutions including restrictions on overseas enrolment. Unlike Australia, New Zealand has not adopted its own Code of Ethics for Agents but instead has leveraged the London Statement as a direct legal obligation for education agents, and like Australia publishes public data on registered education agent performance.  

The United Kingdom, while a signatory of the London Statement and a major player in international education, has not established a national legal framework governing how education institutions work with education agents. Inspired by the London Statement the British Council has published a non-binding National Code of Ethical Practice for UK Education Agents (2021) while developing official Good Practice Guides for both the conduct of education agents and the education institutions that use them. However, neither the Code of Ethical Practice nor these guides are enforceable legal documents and instead each individual institution is encouraged to determine their own policies for education agents and student recruitment along these lines. Clear legislation only exists to prohibit anyone unaccredited from charging for immigration-related advice with an Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) serving a function similar to Canada`s CICC. Nevertheless, amid pressure to respond to harmful recruitment practices, media scrutiny, growing student recruitment in high-risk markets, and new agent business models, an agent quality framework was developed at the sectoral level with support from the UK government after extensive research and stakeholder consultations. In addition to recommending the national code and good practice guides on conduct that were released earlier in 2021, the framework proposed a unified and transparent system of agent training, assessment and tracking that would move the UK more towards the policies of New Zealand and Australia in education agent transparency.  

Ireland is also regulating educational agents through the creation of an Irish Education Agency Course (IEAC). The course is delivered through the ICEF Academy and supported by Education Ireland, Irish Universities Association, Marketing English in Ireland and Technological Higher Education Association Ireland. The purpose is to ensure that educational agents are equipped with the latest and most accurate information about the Irish education system, the study options and qualifications available in

Ireland at all levels, providing guidance on how to work most effectively with Irish institutions, providing information to give to students to help prepare for living and studying in Ireland, and having specialist insights allowing them to guide students to their ideal Irish study experience. Successful graduates will receive a qualification badge with a unique ID number and a certificate confirming them as an Irish Course Graduate (ICG), with the recognition of being an ICEF-qualified Ireland consultant for the international education industry. Graduates are also entered in the Qualified Education Agents (QEA) network, containing the names and company contact details of more than 16,000 qualified agents worldwide. ICEF-trained agents are sought after by education institutions worldwide. 

Ultimately, while their approach to regulating education agents and practices in student recruitment vary, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland draw from the same unified ethical foundation (see the London Statement) and have thriving international education sectors. There are many factors that influence a country’s reputation and appeal as a study destination, however these three countries compete with Canada in many of the same source markets (in the Indo-Pacific region in particular) and ethical practice, transparency and student protections should only serve as a competitive advantage for those who lead the pack.

Questions for consultations  

  • Should this issue be self-regulated by the sector?  
  • Can federal and provincial governments agree on a National Code for Education Agents and DLIs?  
  • Can the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants of Canada be given the authority to regulate Education agents? 
  • Should institutions be held accountable for the conduct of agents who recruit on their behalf? Should sanctions for non-compliance include removal from the DLI list? 
  • Should education agent aggregators also be held accountable for the conduct of their subcontracted agents? 
  • Are there any other ethical considerations in international education that should be addressed in the next IES? 
  • How can GAC support the efforts to train agents?

Annex A: The seven principles of the London Statement 

  • Agents and consultants practice responsible business ethics. 
  • Agents and consultants provide current, accurate and honest information in an ethical manner 
  • Agents and consultants develop transparent business relationships with students and providers through the use of written agreements 
  • Agents and consultants protect the interests of minors. 
  • Agents and consultants provide current and up-to-date information that enables international students to make informed choices when selecting which agent or consultant to employ. 
  • Agents and consultants act professionally. 
  • Agents and consultants work with destination countries and providers to raise ethical standards and best practice. 
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