Despite Controversy, Another Company Enters the U.S. International-Recruiting Market

May 31, 2011

The debate over the ethics of using paid overseas recruitment agents may be heating up, but another major player in international education is jumping into the market.

Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, a British higher-education-consulting company known as QS, is starting a foreign-student-recruiting arm. QS, best known for a prominent global university ranking, plans to offer its new recruiting services to its approximately 1,000 client universities worldwide, including many in the United States, said John Molony, the company's vice president for strategic planning and marketing.

Mr. Molony is in Vancouver for the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators. It was at the Nafsa conference two years ago that two other education companies with global reach trumpeted similar efforts. IDP Education, Australia's largest and most successful foreign-student-recruitment company, said it was branching out into the United States. And Hobsons, the education-services company, announced it would begin to do overseas recruiting for U.S. colleges.

But these companies have found that expansion into the American market has occasionally been bumpy. Private-sector recruiters have faced bureaucratic hurdles that complicate the payment of commissions. They have labored to reverse the long-held mind-set that the American college brand is so strong abroad that outreach to prospective students is unneeded.

After a somewhat slow start, IDP now has about 100 American colleges as clients, but the company's North American director, Mark Shay, recently left to take a job with Drexel University Online.

But perhaps the biggest impediment has been resistance from those with ethical objections to paying outside recruiters—a group that includes the State Department, which has prohibited its overseas student-advising centers from working with commercial agents.

Earlier this month, the National Association for College Admission Counseling weighed in, releasing a proposed policy revision that would bar its members from engaging in commission-based recruitment domestically or internationally. (The use of paid agents is illegal in the United States.) The group is soliciting comments on the proposed changes through June 20.

David A. Hawkins, NACAC's director of public policy and research, said that, after several years of intensifying debate over the issue, the group's leadership felt it must clarify its statement of good practices on the use of overseas recruiters. "As a matter of principle, there is no distinction between a commission for a domestic student and a commission for an international student," Mr. Hawkins said in an e-mail message.

'Trusted Partner' Model

Still, the uproar has not deterred this newest entrant in the recruitment realm. While anti-agent sentiment has slowed the adoption of private-sector recruiting in the United States, the practice is widespread elsewhere, particularly in Australia, where Mr. Molony previously led the international divisions at two major universities.

QS, of course, will offer its service to universities both inside and outside the United States, building, Mr. Moloney said, on the relationships it already has with client institutions in other areas.

The company's model will be to sign on one "trusted partner" agency in each source country, working exclusively with a single recruiter to shepherd students through the admissions process. That will give greater assurance of quality control, Mr. Moloney said. QS has already contracted with a partner in India and is looking for an agency to work with in China.

And Mr. Moloney, for one, is bullish about American colleges growing more open to this private-sector approach to attracting international students.

"The strong reaction has set things back," he said, "but it is slowly changing."