Alia, an aspiring graduate student in her mid-twenties, was searching for master’s degrees online in 2018 when the Berlin School of Business and Innovation (BSBI) caught her eye. Its website was slicker than those of other German universities and the course fees, at €11,000, seemed relatively cheap.

Originally from India, Alia had already studied as an undergraduate in the US but was eager to experience Germany’s business culture. After her application had been accepted, an adviser asked her to pay a deposit to secure her place. Upon arriving in Berlin that October, Alia was surprised to find that there were fewer fellow students than she had expected. The campus on Potsdamer Straße was made up of several rooms on a single floor of an office building.

The students, meanwhile, did not reflect those on the website, where she had seen “a white person, an African person, an Asian person, everyone just laughing together”. Most were, like her, from India.

“I did have an idea that I was going to a university that was diverse, established,” she says. “My adviser [from the Berlin college] did not tell me the university was less than a year old.”

Alia also did not realise that BSBI was part of a global corporate empire that caters to people in her position. In the past two decades, the growth of the world’s middle class has transformed education into a vast export industry. Young people from India, China and other emerging economies seek out life-changing opportunities in the UK, western Europe, Australia and North America — and pay handsomely for them, even if the coronavirus pandemic has thrown such movement into disarray.

BSBI’s parent group, Global University Systems (GUS), has tens of thousands of students at its more than two dozen colleges and institutions, from Singapore to the UK to Canada as well as online. It relies on a sophisticated system for recruiting students from around the world to its own institutions.

But such techniques are not confined to for-profit businesses: the wider education sector in some developed countries could not do without them. 

“We don’t like to think of universities undertaking these kind of commercial relationships to recruit students,” says Vincenzo Raimo, an expert on international higher education.

But international students have become “so important to the financial health of UK universities”, he adds, “that [they] have had to professionalise the way they market themselves, the way they sell themselves and the way they ultimately recruit students.” 

According to OECD data, by 2018, 5.6 million people studied overseas, more than double the number in 2005. The millions of students and billions of pounds flowing through the global education market have created opportunities for many, but also significant space for friction and disappointed dreams.

In March 2019, after several months at BSBI — which offers some of its degrees via an Italian partner — a group of students wrote to the school to take issue with the quality of its tuition and management. Student complaints eventually came to the attention of the Berlin Senate, which temporarily suspended the Italian partner’s right to issue visas, launched a two-week investigation and then asked for improvements in the quality of study programmes.

GUS says that due to high demand BSBI has added another floor and that its student enrolment has been drawn from 78 different nationalities to date. It has said that a number of complaints were unfounded, while others related to issues that had already been addressed and pointed to student satisfaction of 87 per cent in a March 2020 survey.

But concerns such as those expressed by Alia highlight the problems that may arise when the allure of an international education blends with the pursuit of profit. They also tie into a debate over transparency at public-sector universities, which now rely on a matrix of lower-profile businesses to recruit students. “They know the selling points,” says Alia of her experience, “and they know what students are looking for.”

In November 2020, a group of specialist academics and experts from California to New Zealand met on Zoom to discuss the “secret life” of international student recruitment agents. A growth driver for businesses such as GUS, over the past decade the practice has become integral to public-sector universities as well. Thousands of on-the-ground agents, from India to eastern Europe, provide prospective students with guidance for applying to study overseas. For their services, they typically receive commissions of 12.5-15 per cent of the student’s first-year fee. 

“Nearly all universities in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and a growing number in the US, rely on agents,” said Raimo at the online seminar organised by the Centre for Global Higher Education. He estimates that, by now, at least 40 per cent of international students in the UK come through a recruitment agent. 

While agents often work directly with universities, the money also flows through a fast-evolving student supply chain. In the UK, where most universities are registered charities that do not make a profit, companies such as Study Group, INTO University Partnerships and Australia’s Navitas work with agents to recruit international students on to one-year courses that are meant to precede entry to a degree at a partner university. The relevant university in turn pays the company fees for each student who progresses. 

These incentives are little talked about in academia in the west. William Murphy, a senior lecturer in engineering geology at the University of Leeds, says many of his colleagues are unaware of such commercial relationships and assume international students “magically appear” because of the reputation of the university. “That does happen, but less often than is thought,” he says.

© Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva

In 2016-17, non-EU international students in the UK brought in £4.7bn in fees, four times more than the entire surplus generated by UK higher education. The money has become an essential part of the funding mix for higher education in Britain. Since government reforms almost a decade ago reduced direct state funding for research, the sector has been more reliant on financial markets and consumer demand to bring in money. 

According to Times Higher Education, international undergraduates could expect to pay between £10,000 and £26,000 in annual tuition fees to study at UK universities in 2020. (Post-Brexit, this includes EU students, who previously paid UK fees.) One agent based in Georgia says fees have risen so sharply that she now encourages students to apply to other western European such as Germany and Spain. “Study in the UK is a ‘luxury product,’” she says, targeted at the wealthiest citizens. 

Some students, however, are not always clear about what they are getting. Even at 14 or 15, Kenan from Azerbaijan says he was aware education was “not as good” at home as in the UK. At 17, he applied to study at INTO Manchester, a company that provides one-year foundation courses, after which students have “guaranteed” progress to a UK partner university if they pass an exam. According to the University of Manchester’s website, such courses cost from £18,365 to £23,495 for 2021 entry.

Kenan says that, based on his conversation with an agent at home, he was under the impression he would be studying at Manchester university itself rather than with an education company. When he complained, the agent replied that he had chosen to go. A spokesperson for INTO says it is “completely transparent and clear in all of our communications material”.

For Raimo, international agents are a response to the “marketisation” of higher education. He argues that, while they can play an important role for students moving abroad, there is an issue of transparency. “In other sectors there’s clearer consumer protection,” says Raimo. “When I go to an agent to give me advice about my mortgage, I will understand the terms on which that agent will give me that advice. A student doesn’t know that.”

The official opening of BSBI arrived with a royal flourish. As the dean outlined the school’s mission in November 2018 — “to educate, train and integrate students from all over the world into the German culture and economic landscape” — its patrons, Prince Paul and Princess Lia of Romania, cut the ribbons. 

With 1,200 students now on courses ranging from business administration to event management, BSBI is a small part of GUS, the largest education company based in Europe in 2019, according to rating agency S&P. But the importance GUS places on marketing and recruiting potential students lies at the heart of its business model and forms a prism for understanding how education has been both globalised and financialised in recent years.

A multidecade boom has been boosted by the new wealth of powers such as China. Meanwhile, established higher-education models in developed markets have faced economic and political pressure, leading them to search for new sources of revenue.

These factors are embedded in a wider process of globalisation, which has caused demand for overseas study to rocket.

The growth of GUS is linked to these trends. Its founder Aaron Etingen, a Russian-born British entrepreneur, started the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) in 2003; it originated in an attic off Hyde Park Corner, according to an interview with him in the City AM newspaper.

LSBF typically offered diplomas, a work-related qualification, but also went on to provide degrees through partnerships with other universities, and catered to both domestic and international students.

The political mood in Britain at the time was propitious. In 2006, Labour prime minister Tony Blair set a target of 100,000 more international students by 2011, and described Britain as a “world leader” in recruiting them. The UK government relaxed visa laws and made it easier for graduates to remain in the UK for work.

Today, student recruitment has become a vast enterprise for many in the education sector. In 2017, GUS generated 400,000 potential student leads, and drew on a network of 1,100 education agents in the UK and abroad, according to its documents. In 2015, it had 500 sales, marketing and business development staff across 23 international offices. In recent years, it has bought colleges in Ireland, Canada and the Caribbean, as well as purchasing Arden, an online-only university, for which it was advised by Goldman Sachs.

One former employee described the “massive open space” filled by the marketing and recruitment team in GUS’s London office, where you might “get the feeling all the world’s languages were spoken”. Another recruiter, who recently worked for the company in North America, says it had an internationally diverse team of staff, mostly in their early to mid-twenties, who were encouraged to chase up “warm leads” and received a small bonus if they reached 10 deposits from students in a month.

These marketing efforts were directed towards Ghana, Nigeria, India and Pakistan and, as in any commercially incentivised sales job, the recruiter was required to make a high volume of calls — about 80 a day. In her view, only a fraction of the students she spoke to seemed suitable for international study.

“For some of these students, it was their entire family’s life savings,” she says. “If they do come from quite a bit of money, they’re likely to go off to one of the more recognised schools.”

GUS’s view is that performance targets for admissions staff are standard practice — both in private institutions and public universities in the UK.

In 2012, the government allowed UK students at for-profit colleges greater access to the country’s tuition-fee loans system; this meant that British students benefiting from taxpayer loans of up to £6,000 were now also potential customers. That year, Etingen’s group bought St Patrick’s College in London, where it started to work with Opportunity Network, a specialist company that helped it recruit some of its students. According to a former Opportunity Network employee, it had more than 100 people working in “disadvantaged areas” of London. His colleagues were frequently recruiting at jobcentres, where they were offered their own tables.

Many of the students came from black Caribbean or black African communities, says the former employee. “I think for the first time in their lives . . . someone had come up to them. . . and said, ‘We can help you get into higher education.’” Between 2012 and 2016, St Patrick’s College and the London School of Business and Finance, both part of GUS, received £119m in revenue from government tuition-fee loans to students, according to data from the Student Loans Company.

Regarding its work with Opportunity Network, GUS believes student recruitment has ensured access to career-relevant education for thousands of individuals who previously would have had little opportunity. It considers that the receipt of tuition fees funded through loans from the Student Loans Company has been subject to rigorous monitoring and regular audits throughout.

Pressure from the government on the for-profit higher-education sector has flared up in the past decade. In 2012, the Quality Assurance Agency, which regulates higher education, investigated a partnership between LSBF and the University of Wales to allow students to study for MBAs. The QAA said that more students had been recruited “than the resource base justified” and added that at one point more than half of them had complained. GUS says LSBF drew up an action plan in response to the concerns raised, which “was done to the QAA’s satisfaction and the Concerns investigation was closed”.

The UK Home Office, which is responsible for immigration, was also concerned that education providers were offering visas to ineligible students, drawing the sector into political discussions on immigration in the years building up to the Brexit referendum. “The Home Office took a really strong interest in what was going on at individual universities, particularly these private providers,” says Mark Leach, the founder of Wonkhe, a higher-education think-tank.

© Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva

In 2016, LSBF had its rights to issue non-EU student visas revoked after a number of its students had their applications refused. The right of St Patrick’s College to issue these visas had been revoked in 2015 after concerns about “compliance issues”, according to the Home Office. The Home Office confirmed late last year that neither institution now has the right to issue visas in the UK.

GUS has said St Patrick’s non-EU student visa rights were revoked because of issues with documentation dating to before it purchased the college and that it decided not to reapply because the student base there became 95 per cent domestic. LSBF’s revocation came because it had not met particular targets in the UK’s visa system for the 10 months ending June 2015. According to GUS, LSBF chose not to reapply because the UK became a less attractive destination for international students.

GUS points to awards it has won, including Private Education Group of the Year at the EducationInvestor awards in 2019, as well as high student satisfaction surveys for several of its institutions. It has aligned itself with figures such as David Blunkett, former secretary of state for education, who lectured at LSBF and chairs the University of Law, one of the UK’s top law schools, which GUS acquired in 2015. Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s cousin and patron of LSBF, opened its Singapore campus in 2011.

Prestige remains a powerful tool for those selling education, but grand connections are not always helpful. After Paul of Romania, who cut the ribbon at BSBI, was convicted in a domestic corruption case in late 2020, the school removed him from its list of patrons. GUS says: “Prince Paul’s last appearance at a BSBI ceremony (and his last involvement with BSBI) was long before . . . the allegations against him had come to light.”

Whether students such as Alia and Kenan will be able to access globalised education in the near future remains uncertain. Like universities across the world, GUS has had to adjust to circumstances in the coronavirus pandemic, which has restricted the free movement that educational trade was used to. In November, S&P downgraded the credit rating on both the group and €1.1bn of its debt, and mentioned operational pressures from the pandemic.

The company, though, says the pandemic has actually boosted part of its business, with higher demand for online education “due to Covid-19 and government measures in fighting the pandemic”. It believes, as life returns to normal, more people will choose “online or blended education”.

What the rise of GUS hints at is a much bigger movement that even a pandemic may not stop: not just competition between the public and private sectors, but a gradual blurring of the distinction between the two. The company may account for a fraction of higher education in the markets where it operates, but its ability to sell education echoes the way the entire western industry has evolved.

“Demand for higher education, now more than ever . . . is far in excess of capacity,” says Alfred Morris, a former interim vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, who now runs a company which advises businesses including GUS. “Unless you can attract private investment in education, you will come nowhere near satisfying the scale of demand.”

“This is actually a global industry,” says Patrick Brothers, the founder of HolonIQ, an education data business. “It’s highly under-capitalised, highly fragmented, [but] something big here’s going to happen for sure.” He points to record venture capital spending in education in 2020 of $16.1bn — 32 times the level in 2010.

However, education is an area where the role of profit is treated with caution. One analyst at a private equity firm in London, who has looked at investing in the sector, says that the reputational risk is “massive” and expresses ethical concerns over the way students in China with weak academic records were sometimes targeted.

The perception of education as a life-changing phenomenon, as well as the sums at stake, is central to the sensitivities provoked by the for-profit players. In Berlin, Alia says some of her fellow students felt their “lives were being played with”.

Academics studying the field highlight a so-called information asymmetry between students and agents. Australia and New Zealand have introduced official measures to protect the interests of international students but in the UK and the US, despite guidance, there is no formal regulation in place. The US Education Act of 1992 does prohibit the payment of third-party commissions solely for the purpose of recruiting American students.

“I think the root issue,” says Eddie West, assistant dean at San Diego State University, “is students and families by and large are unaware oftentimes of the commission incentives at work behind the scenes of the advice they’re receiving.”

To help potential students make up their minds about schools they may never have visited, YouTubers now analyse and critique universities. Bharat Chaudhary, originally from India, studied for a masters at a public university in Germany and has uploaded videos sceptical of education consultants to his channel, which has had 13 million views.

The 26-year-old — who now has German citizenship and runs his own business — expects that he would have been earning about €200 a month had he stayed in India. Chaudhary believes the wider industry around international study arose “from desperation”. For students, he says, education abroad is “like this promise that life is going to get better once you leave this place”. 

Some names have been changed. Thomas Hale is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent

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