What they don’t want you to know: The Cambridge Student exclusively reveals the secret “unethical” commission rates of top UK universities

Anglia Ruskin pays more than £1,000 per student to unlicensed, unregulated, unqualified ‘uni-touts'

The Cambridge Student can exclusively reveal that Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) is among a number of UK universities which recruit overseas students by paying unlicensed, unregulated ‘agents' a commission rate for every overseas student they secure, a system which is currently illegal in the United States and considered "similar to bribery" by education professionals. These payments are channelled through an international university "preparation" company called Kaplan International Colleges (KIC), labelled by its former students as a "scam school" which "takes advantage of minorities." Along with offering "advice" for potential applicants, Kaplan claims to offer its students "guaranteed places" at a number of UK universities, a claim which TCS has verified as true for at least one UK university.

Last year, a Times Higher Education (THE) investigation revealed that UK universities recruited more than 50,000 international students through commission payments to "overseas agents" in 2011, but was unable to publish commission rates, as many of the universities they approached refused to provide the information on grounds of "financial sensitivity."

However, TCS is now able to exclusively reveal this information, uncovered in a confidential document listing the exact commission rates paid to Kaplan by 72 UK universities.

Out of the universities listed, ARU features among those paying the highest commission rates, offering a payment of more than £1,000 (7.5% of one year's tuition fees) for each overseas student provided by Kaplan's ‘uni touts.' Miranda, a second year Art Historian from Peterhouse, said: "It's outrageous. When you consider the furore over tuition fees ... if are going to charge people that much, then it should go towards education, not shady outside agents."

A footnote to the "confidential" Kaplan list explains the process in detail: "Universities will only pay commission out once a student has paid his/her first year tuition fees in full. Once the money has been received, Kaplan Aspect will inform the agent of the amount due and check whether is money should be transferred directly to the agent's bank account."

TCS contacted the ten highest paying universities on the list, but nine – including Anglia Ruskin – did not reply. The only response was from the University of Wales, who offered no explanation, citing verbatim the excuse offered to TCS last year: "commercial sensitivity."

Kaplan's ‘University Placement Service' (UPS) offers applications advice and coaching to students on Kaplan College courses. Information in the document reveals that that this "advice" is strictly tailored to the commission rates received: "UPS Direct will only place students at commission paying institutions."

Kaplan's UPS also claims to offer "guaranteed" places at UK "partner" universities for Kaplan students: "KIC works in partnership with a number of top universities in the UK to provide international students with preparation courses to undergraduate degree courses... Most of our courses include guaranteed progression to your partner university on successful completion to the required level." The ten universities shortlisted as offering a "guaranteed" place to Kaplan students are Bournemouth University, City University London, Nottingham Trent University, University of Brighton, University of Glasgow, University of Liverpool, University of Sheffield, University of Westminster and the University of the West of England.

Upon being asked for confirmation of their ties with Kaplan, all but one of Kaplan's shortlisted "partner" universities failed to comment. The Cass Business School of City University London did respond, confirming that they have "an agreement" with Kaplan to accept up to 10 students each year, and that the university works with "a number of agents", paying 10% of the tuition fee to agents "for every student successfully enrolled into City courses." TCS is unable to confirm or deny whether the other universities on Kaplan's shortlist have a similar "agreement."

David Kay, a second-year Archaeology & Anthropology student, said: "It's important for universities to prove that the admissions are still based on talent rather than cash, especially given the recent controversy over tuition fees. But when you see something like this, it goes directly against what the government and the universities are claiming. The whole idea of ‘guaranteed places' is wrong, and should have died in the 19th Century."

Despite UK universities' decision to accept students solely on the basis of a "successful" Kaplan course, the value of Kaplan's tuition has been repeatedly criticised by the programme's former students. Ripoffreport.com, an online customer services watchdog, lists 254 complaints against "Kaplan University", including a complaint from a former Financial Aid Officer at Kaplan's Florida branch, criticising the "university" for its "aggressive enrolment process" and "questionable quality of education". "They don't seem motivated to educate," he writes, and "they are motivated to make money." His description of Kaplan's telemarketing techniques might cause concern among those UK universities whose commission payments help to support Kaplan: "Once they get a possible student on the line, they will do anything they can to get you to enrol... I have seen people enrol who do not have computer access, don't know how to read, or have a mental handicap. Reputable colleges have students calling them, not the other way around."

Nottingham University is the only institution which has made its policy regarding commission rates open to the public. In November last year, Nottingham announced their decision to shift their use of overseas agents towards a more "ethical" and "transparent" system. TCS asked Harriet Matthews, Head of International Student Recruitment at the University, why Nottingham had made the change: "We want people to be well informed and have all the facts... we have no ‘secret' agents." Vincenzo Raimo, the director of Nottingham's International Office, argued in a statement published in The PIE News last year that many universities "are in danger of failing to meet ethical standards in their work overseas." "In our competitive fervour we've let agents become too powerful," he argues, pointing to the fact that many agencies – such as Kaplan – are paid twice for their services: "Some even charge the prospective students for whom we then pay commission for the ‘counselling' they are given on our behalf in the first place."

Such practices have met with the condemnation of American academics. In a statement published by University World News, Dr Rahul Choudaha, director of research and advisory services at World Education Services in New York, argued that "using commission-based agents to quickly drive up international student numbers increases the risk that standards will be lowered, that documents will be fraudulent and that there will be other shoddy practices afoot... creates an incentive for misrepresentation, fraud and bias."

Reporting: Gwen Jing and Tristram Fane Saunders

Photo - Ben Verth

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