Durham’s expenditure on agents to secure international students triples in seven years

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According to an FOI, Durham’s expenditure on education agents to source international students has more than tripled over the last seven years: from £1,469,000 in 2015/2016 to £4,852,000 in 2022/2023. Universities pay educational agents in commission to help international students with the university application process. 

According to the University’s most recent annual report, by 2021/2022 they had increased international student numbers by 58% since 2016/2017. HESA data indicates that the number of home students only increased by 16.4% over the same period. 

The student recruitment industry has expanded rapidly, with Universities UK telling The Guardian that this rise in expenditure is in line with growing international student numbers: “More students are choosing agents to help navigate the application, selection and visa processes.” They also told the paper that most agents were “trusted and valuable partners” for universities, which had “rigorous processes” to “prevent abuse”. 

In 2023, however, the former universities minister, Lord Jo Johnson, claimed that “rogue agents” pose a risk to universities’ licenses, calling for the Office for Students to start a register of agents with information on performance data, such as visa refusals and course completion rates.

The student recruitment industry has expanded rapidly… this rise in expenditure is in line with growing international student numbers

The ex-minister claimed that some gave out fake bank documents or “recycled the same funding” to fulfil visa requirements, but did not specify any agencies. There is no evidence that any of the representatives Durham employs have engaged in such behaviour. 

According to the institution’s website, representatives of Durham University must pledge to “be honest in their communications with the student,” “behave with integrity and honesty and are appointed following a thorough selection process,” and never pass on charges to applicants. These representatives are paid in commission for their services. 

In a University Executive Committee meeting before the start of the 2022/2023 academic year, Durham predicted that their target for postgraduate home and international students had a shortfall of 286. The cost of living crisis was considered as a factor for falling numbers of home applicants. 

Durham University recruits to separate targets for home and international students, with a spokesperson telling Palatinate, “Courses are not made available to international students at the expense of home students. We treat home and international students as separate targets. 

“Our proportion of home students is relatively high for a Russell Group University, 68% for 2022/23, and for 2023/24 we made nearly double the offers through Clearing to home students as to international students.” 

In the University’s original 10 year plan, published in 2017, the University aimed to increase the proportion of international students to at least 35% by 2027: a target which was increased to 36% in a refresh of the strategy.

The government decision to freeze the undergraduate tuition fees for home, undergraduate students presents increased financial pressures for the sector

Joe Docherty Chair of Council

The increase in international agent spending comes amid other projects to increase Durham’s overseas presence, as worries about university finances grow. In the University’s 2022/2023 annual report, Joe Docherty Chair of Council stated, “The government decision to freeze the undergraduate tuition fees for home, undergraduate students until 2024/2025 presents increased financial pressures and challenges for the sector, particularly with rising costs.” 

Before the start of the 2022/2023 academic year, the provider for Durham’s launchpad provider in China was changed and an additional member of staff was added: at a total cost of £245,512 per annum, an increase on previous costs of £182,439 per annum. 

A 2023 report from the House of Lords described “a worrying complacency” in UK universities’ financial dependence on international students in the face of the “risks of geopolitical shifts,” especially regarding Chinese students. 

The report claimed that: “Home undergraduate tuition fees have been frozen since 2018, and their value has been further eroded by recent inflation. As a result, many higher education providers have developed an unhealthy and unsustainable reliance on fees from international students.” 

In minutes from a Senate meeting on 23/03/23, the Vice- Chancellor’s presentation covered “what would not happen during the remainder of the University Strategy period, recognising the accommodation challenges in the city.” 

The original pledge to open 4-5 new colleges was not mentioned in the refresh of Durham’s 10 year plan, while plans to increase the proportion of international students remained.

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