WKU looks towards new concept of international agents

agents globe.jpg

Andrew Henderson

Enrollment Experiment

One decade ago, President Gary Ransdell began pushing in earnest the internationalization of WKU.

Upon deciding to make international efforts a priority for the university, the question then became: How will WKU recruit on a global stage? In an interview with the Herald, Ransdell said he knew early on it wasn’t practical or feasible to gear up an admissions staff and have them travel the world. This is where agents come in.

Agents are people who represent organizations or firms across the globe who are hired to recruit students for a university. They receive a commission rate, typically a portion of an international student’s first-year tuition, in return for their services.

Agents are nothing new to higher education and are not exclusive to WKU. According to a 2016 report by the Bridge Education Group, 37 percent of U.S. universities and colleges work with international student recruitment agencies.

Brian Meredith, chief enrollment and graduation officer, said WKU has been contracting agents on and off again for the last 15 to 20 years, as long as Ransdell has been president.

“The vast majority of that recruitment is through agents, and then we infuse international recruitment representatives, officers, whatever you want to call them, as best we can,” he said.

Currently, WKU has a personal service contract for international recruitment approved by the Kentucky Government Review Committee from July 1, 2016, to July 30, 2018, through which WKU will pay $900,000.

Now, WKU stands at the altar of a new concept of utilizing agents, a sort of “super agent,” as described by Brian Dinning, budget analyst in International Enrollment Management—a person who can develop and foster relationships with other agents WKU couldn’t coordinate with by itself.

“The theory is that he will be able to develop newer relationships with a lot more agents…and then you’ve got so many more people working for you than we do now,” Dinning said. “Hopefully that will increase enrollment by increasing your number of agents.”

The ‘he,’ Dinning is referring to is Raza Tiwana. Tiwana resigned from his position of chief international officer–global recruitment at WKU on July 31, 2016, according to his personnel file. Tiwana’s resignation, however, was dependent upon a formal signing of an “exclusive recruitment agreement” with the university.

Before his resignation, Tiwana’s salary was $90,000, according to the fiscal year 2015-2016 budgeted salary information. Information pertaining to additional expenses for Tiwana’s job could not be collected before publication.

Thus, this official agreement formed Edezell Consultants Limited on July 21, 2016 with Tiwana serving as Edezell’s principal agent.

Edezell Consultants Limited

Tiwana, in an email response to the question of creating Edezell, said the decision for him to start focusing solely on recruitment was an administrative decision to increase international enrollment given his expertise in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) and South Asia regions.

“This concept helps me spend more time in the region in order to build continuous relationship with students and sponsored organization that fund students education,” he said in an email. “This also gives WKU a huge advantage over other universities who travel to the region once or twice.”

Tiwana said he was traveling, but answered questions by email. However, after an initial inquiry, Tiwana did not respond to followup questions from the Herald.

According to a wire transfer request form, Edezell is located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in Al Moosa Tower 2, Office 1904. But, according to email correspondence from Helen Whitfield, office manager of Al Moosa Towers 1 & 2, Edezell does not occupy an office in the tower.

Tiwana said he rents space from MBK Auditing, which is located in Al Moosa Tower 2, but Whitfield said tenants “are not allowed to sub-let their office space to other companies.”

Edezell is incorporated with the Ras Al Khaimah International Corporate Centre, RAK ICC, as an international business, according to a certificate attached with Edezell’s contract.

RAK ICC, according to the website uae-company.ae, “is a specially designated jurisdiction in Ras Al Khaimah Emirate, that works exclusively for International Companies administration and maintenance.”

Agent contracts

Edezell is part of a larger multi-contract WKU has for international recruitment through a personal service contract.

Jim Cummings, WKU’s chief financial officer, said multi-contracts have more than one agency/vendor involved. He said, in cases like these, WKU writes up a sort of master contract, for recruitment in this instance, and different agents are filed underneath.

So long as the amount paid out to the agents doesn’t exceed $900,000, the university isn’t required to update the contract with the state review committee.

However, Edezell was amended onto the existing contract in April 2017, meaning it was not included in the original multi-contract filed in July of last year. Maxine Hardin, purchasing chief buyer, said Edezell was inadvertently left off the contract.

Cummings said he realized Edezell wasn’t in the original contract and informed Hardin to add it; he also said it’s fairly common to add subsequent vendors.

Hardin said these contracts go through herself, Ken Baushke, supply chain management director, and Ransdell before being sent to the Government Review Contract Committee for final approval.

Apart from Edezell, there are 10 other agents on the multi-contract, such as Valmiki Consultants Limited, Innovation World Consultants and Colibri Group, amongst others.

WKU had a prior multi-contract for international recruitment from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2016. This contract was priced at $100,000 and included a total of 28 agents, according to records obtained by the Herald.

Per a records request, the Herald received the contracts and available invoices submitted by the agents included in the current multi-contract. One such invoice submitted September 5, 2016, from Innovation World Consultants, for instance, bills WKU for $5,000 for the recruitment of two international students. These commission funds, Dinning said, come from tuition revenue generated by students.

Dinning said there is a standard template for these agent contracts, which is why a majority of the agent contracts, save for two (Edezell and IDP Education Limited), are identical regarding compensation, recruitment expenses, duration and other terms.

The going rate for recruiting an undergraduate student is $2,500, and graduate students are $1,250, except for Edezell and IDP.

Commission rates received by Edezell vastly differ from the other agents.

According to invoices obtained by the Herald, Edezell was paid approximately $163,000 for Fall 2016 commissions and approximately $285,000 for Spring 2017 commissions, according to the most up-to-date invoices.

Edezell’s commissions for this past fiscal year are a bit shy of $450,000.

Edezell receives a commission fee of 25 percent of first-year tuition, less international tuition surcharge and mandatory student fees, collected by the university for the enrollment of all new F1 visa international students from the MENA and South Asia regions, a combined 25 countries.

F1 visas are issued to international students who are attending an academic program or English Language Program at a U.S. university. They are the most common visa for full-time international students.

There are other commission payments stipulated as well, but the contract noted only one commission may be earned per new student.

Meredith said some people might get “sticker shocked” if they looked at that initial price tag, but said the tuition revenue generated outweighed the costs of paying the commission fees.

“People don’t like to see higher education as an enterprise, but we have to function financially, and the most successful…businesses invest money into their efforts with the idea that tenfold that money will come back in return,” he said.

In response to an open records request seeking information on how many students Edezell directly recruited, Andrea Anderson, assistant general counsel, said no such records exist.

This is another aspect where Edezell differs from other agents. For example, an invoice submitted by Learning Questa Educational Services lists the name of a student which the agent recruited; the WKU student database confirmed the student is still enrolled at WKU.

Cummings said last fall there were 80 new enrolled international students from the MENA and South Asia regions and that number increased to 135 for this spring.

“Commission calculation is based on total net tuition revenues of $2,315,378 for those students, with total commission payments to Edezell Consultants Limited during FY2017 expected to be approximately $437,630,” Cummings said, providing information related to the records request.

However, this does not necessarily mean Edezell directly recruited these students. As Cummings explained, if any student who meets the F1 visa requirement who comes from the MENA and South Asia region, Edezell receives a commission.

Regardless if students were recruited by another agent, or simply decided to come to WKU of their own volition without being recruited by an agent, Edezell receives a commission. Dinning also confirmed this aspect of the contract.

“If they meet that criteria as defined in the Edezell contract then Edezell would get a commission,” Cummings said.

Super agent theory

Meredith said it’s his understanding Tiwana is “working and building that network of agents and has been.” However, he said he could not speak to how many agents work underneath Edezell, or if Edezell itself has any other employees except for Tiwana. Tiwana did not respond to such questions from the Herald.

In an email, Ransdell said he was aware of the shifting dynamics for international student recruitment, and in this regard, saw the need for in-country focused aid. He said the intent with Edezell was to create an agent, or agents, who recruit solely for WKU.

“The theory is that an exclusive agent knows us well and can sell WKU better if he or she is not representing multiple institutions,” Ransdell said in an email. “If this works in one geographic region of the globe, then it might work in other geographic areas too.”

According to the 2016 Fact Book, half of the top 10 foreign countries represented from fall 2015 enrollment come from countries representative of the MENA and South Asia regions.

Tiwana’s role of an agent, networking with other agents and bringing them underneath the umbrella of recruiting for WKU, is about increasing international student enrollment as well as diversifying the university’s enrollment profile, according to Meredith.

These efforts come on the tail-end of fluctuating enrollment of international students. As previously reported by the Herald, there was a 15.2 percent drop in international student enrollment between fall 2015 and fall 2016, a decrease of 209 students.

Without agents, Meredith said WKU wouldn’t have nearly the number of international students WKU currently enrolls, and the number of international students adds both cultural diversity and financial boostings that other regional institutions may not have.

“Most schools hover around six or seven hundred, 800. Most regional, comprehensive institutions I’d say they probably hover around 750; 800 is probably a safer bet,” he said.

However, Dinning said a small percentage of international students come solely through agents. He estimated within the last year the number was under 50 students. He said the university’s biggest marketing tool is still through word-of-mouth. But, he also said agents are a tool they hope to expand upon.

Based on invoices obtained by the Herald, the total number of students recruited by agents, except for Edezell, total 15. But, as Dinning noted, an agent doesn’t get paid unless a student is enrolled here, meaning it costs the university little to put resources toward agents.

“We don’t have to pay the signed contracts with the agents, so there’s no money that we’re spending upfront,” he said. “We are giving part of the tuition money of that student, but that’s tuition money we never would have received otherwise.”

Defining an end goal

Ransdell said the university has to be smart about replenishing recruitment efforts with new contracts to sustain “the numbers and dollar to which we have become accustomed.”

He said government sponsored contracts for international students which have been productive for WKU in the past, such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia, won’t last forever.

“An in country or regionally exclusive WKU agent may be more likely to develop such relationships and secure such contracts,” Ransdell said in an email.

Meredith said he, and his office, are going to be monitoring the number of students recruited from the MENA and South Asia regions closely. He said if numbers continue to grow from what they were a year ago then “we know we’re probably onto something here in a positive way.”

However, he said even if enrollment doesn’t grow quickly the efforts should not be considered an immediate failure. He said context and current events in these countries also needs to be considered, which he said is another reason to believe in Edezell.

“That’s another reason for being aggressive about moving toward an Edezell model…because the changing geopolitical climate constantly is evolving and changing, it’s never the same,” he said. “That’s why these institutions of higher ed. here, if we’re going be serious about recruiting, we’ve got to be aggressive about it.”

Using agents, however, can be controversial.

In the realm of higher education, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) proposed new language for its policies which would prohibit its accredited institutions from using incentive-based compensation in international student recruitment, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Mitch Leventhal, founding president of the American International Recruitment Council, said, to Inside Higher Ed, if the proposed policy goes into effect as originally written, institutions will have to cancel contracts they’ve signed with agencies. He also said this could have an effect on a national level.

Meredith said he can understand some of the ethical concerns people may hold about the agent process, but said anyone could cherry-pick and find negative aspects of any process.

With how WKU’s agent infrastructure is now, he said the university is recruiting students which are going to stay at WKU and students who are fully qualified academically.

However, this has not always been the case. Most notably, an April 2016 story in The New York Times details the university’s relationship with Global Tree Overseas Education Consultants, an agent, which according to Global Tree’s contract with WKU, Tiwana signed off on.

Of the 132 students admitted through Global Tree’s recruitment effort, referred to as the India Pilot Project, 106 scored below WKU’s requirement on an English language test.

“It is ethically wrong to bring students to the university and let them believe they can be successful when we have nothing in place to make sure they’re successful,” SGA President Jay Todd Richey told the Times.

More than one-third of the students from India recruited through this campaign were asked to leave WKU, a follow-up story from the Times found. At least 25 students who came to WKU as recruited from Global Tree ended up leaving.

According to documents obtained by the Herald, after the Times published its story, Ransdell received a letter from Particia Donat, vice president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) on May 6, 2016, regarding “the use of international recruiting consultants as a strategy to increase student enrollment” which had raised questions for SACS, WKU’s accrediting agency, “about Western Kentucky University’s ongoing compliance with the ‘Principles of Accreditation’.”

In the letter, Donat required WKU prepare a report that explained and documented the extent of WKU’s compliance with comprehensive standards of SACS’s “Principles of Accreditation,” which included standards for admission policies, academic support services and student records amongst others.

WKU provided the documentation required by SACS. In a August 16, 2016 letter, from SACS President Belle Wheelan, SACS determined that “the unsolicited information did not support a determination of your institution’s non-compliance with the ‘Principles of Accreditation’,” the letter read.

Philip Altbach, a research professor at Boston College and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education, told Inside Higher Ed, speaking on the MSCHE policy, he was in favor of anything which weakens the agent infrastructure and the legitimacy of the concept of agents.

“Agents represent institutions and not students, and agents represent those institutions which are paying them and are not in a position, if they’re kind of traditional agents, to recommend the best possible university or college for the student; they recommend the university or college which is providing them the money,” Altbach said.

As for WKU’s new experimental theory of a super agent, in the form of Edezell and Tiwana, Meredith said it’s too early to deem the effort a failure or success.

“Time will tell,” he said.