American recruitment body rejects 'naive' calls to 'eliminate' the agents
Claims that overseas-recruitment agents should be "eliminated" have provoked anger from a US body developing standards of ethical practice in the area.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mitch Leventhal, vice-president and treasurer of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), said US institutions needed to accept that recruitment agents were "here to stay".
US universities traditionally have had ethical reservations about the use of agents, but Dr Leventhal said that institutions had become more accepting of them in the past two years after a period of using them "furtively".
However, in a recent paper in the journal International Higher Education, Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, proves that resistance to the use of international-recruitment agents is still present in some quarters of the US sector.
Professor Altbach calls the agents "a spectre...haunting international higher education" and argues it is "high time these operators are eliminated".
Dr Leventhal called Professor Altbach's views "arrogant, naive or both".
"Philip Altbach has made huge contributions to the study of international education over the years and I am an admirer of his work," Dr Leventhal said. "However, on this issue he is out of his depth."
He continued: "It is arrogant to believe that the US government has the power or the right to interfere with the regulations of hundreds of national governments; it is naive to believe that the world's governments can come together...to do the same, when agreeing on issues such as global warming or nuclear proliferation - issues of more generalised importance - continues to elude us."
The AIRC argues that international-recruitment agents should be subject to a set of rigorous, official standards to eliminate abuse and unethical behaviour.
A paper released by the body last week acknowledges that it is "difficult" for colleges and universities to make informed decisions on selecting agencies because of a lack of quality assurance in the area.
The AIRC has launched a 10-step certification process that it hopes can be rolled out worldwide.
"It requires a shift from American institutions to accepting that these recruitment agents are here to stay," said Dr Leventhal, who is also vice-chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York.
He added that "students will use them whether the institutions choose to engage with them or not".
The number of institutions using international-recruitment agents was difficult to track, but was "significantly more" than the AIRC's current membership, which stands at 125 higher education institutions, he said.
The AIRC paper says that an increasing number of US institutions are starting to use international agents more openly and argues that agents have an "important place" in recruitment.
Dr Leventhal compared the current "open" situation with that of a decade ago, when institutional attitudes towards international-recruitment agents reminded him of attitudes towards homosexuality at the time of Oscar Wilde's trial.
"A lot were doing it but they were afraid...that it would cause reputational risk," he explained.
Universities elsewhere have long relied on agents to attract fee-paying students from abroad and Dr Leventhal admitted that the US had not been as quick to adapt to changes in the global-recruitment market as other countries.
"We're a gigantic higher education system...The bigger something is, the slower is the change," he said.
Dr Leventhal concluded by advising Professor Altbach to "leave it to the experts".