'Headhunters' feed on students' ambition

Charu Sudan Kasturi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi | Updated: Oct 16, 2012 02:01 IST

Education consultant Tejash Thakkar tells students his job is to help find the best foreign university for them. But in emails to senior officials of Vancouver-based University Canada West (UCW), his language is closer to that of a successful headhunter working on behalf of the varsity.

"We would like to inform you that we have lined up potential students for your visit on November 28," Thakkar wrote on November 11, 2011 to Ben Thapa, regional director for international marketing at UCW, which several students have accused of misleading them - charges denied by the varsity.

Thakkar, the education agent, and Thapa, a marketing professional working with UCW to liaison operations in this country, represent the two ends of a chain that links foreign varsities desperate for Indian students to keen but often unsuspecting young men and women in cities and towns across India.

From Ludhiana and Jalandhar to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, education agents are tapping a growing market borne out of a mutual demand bordering on desperation - from Indian students keen to go abroad, and from foreign universities relying on them financially.

And Indian administrators hired by these universities as their officials help them convince students that the varsities understand their aspirations, students who have raised concerns about UCW and other foreign varsities have told HT in face-to-face, phone and email interviews. The financial model most agents work with rewards those - at least in the short run - who send most students to these universities.

So, they don't help admit students to varsities. They recruit them.

"We have successfully recruited student Mr. Kanish Doshi for MBA programme," Thakkar, director of Mumbai-based Apex Consultants wrote on November 10, 2011 to Darren Hancott, UCW's chief administrative officer at the time. "Please guide us how do we go about commissions for student recruited."

India sends close to 200,000 students abroad for higher studies each year - second only to China. About 30 % of these students belong to a "grey market" of Indians actually interested in emigrating abroad, and looking for student visas only as their entry ticket to the developed world, estimates Naveen Chopra, who with his wife Natasha runs Delhi-based foreign education consultancy The Chopras, possibly India's oldest such firm. But at a time when universities across the US, Canada, Australia and the UK - the top four destinations for Indian students - are increasingly relying on foreign students, every student, genuine or fake, is a trophy to be fought for.

While most top universities - like the Ivy League varsities, Cambridge or Oxford - never turn to education consultants, many others, including public universities in the UK, sign agreements with multiple agencies in India. Under these agreements, the consultants receive a commission for every student that they shepherd to the university, once he or she is admitted. Some agents also take a fee from students - particularly for universities that they either don't have a tie up with, or which pay a low commission.

The commissions agents receive from universities vary from about 8% to up to 20 % of the tuition fees, with an average of about 12%, multiple consultants interviewed said. The better universities - including public institutions - have an incentive to keep out students from the "grey market." But more dubious universities are willing to "recruit" any student willing to pay the fee.

California-based Tri Valley University - shut down in 2010 -- and Herguan University - even lied to US immigration authorities just to get foreign students, mostly from India, on their rolls, according to federal court documents.

London Metropolitan University had 15 Indian education agencies who were recruiting students for the varsity. Even after the UK Border Agency suspended LMU's license to admit students from outside the European Union, the university's India office continued accepting fees from students though it could not have admitted them, Sabarinath Vijayakumar, the varsity's country representative confirmed to HT last month.

Kanish Doshi, the student mentioned in Thakkar's email to UCW's Thapa, was also among those desperate to get to Canada, the Mumbai-based education consultant said.

But many others have been misled by agents about foreign universities.

UCW board steward LE Triplett told HT the Vancouver varsity severed ties with one Indian agent after it found that the agent had shown a student pictures of a tree-lined avenue to suggest that the university had a campus. In fact, it admittedly has just eight classrooms on a single floor of a commercial building in downtown Vancouver - though students and faculty members claim UCW has only four classrooms. It is also silent about its facilities and infrastructure on its website, making it easier for agents to dupe students.

Three other Indian students told HT that agents nudged them towards joining UCW. During the admission process, they communicated mainly with Indian origin employees at UCW, email communication between these students and the university suggests.

And though these students did not eventually join the varsity, they suffered.

One of them, Harsh, paid his fees for the first term at UCW, but after his visa was rejected, the university took four months to refund the amount of over USD 4000. He had taken the money as loan from a bank, and after his Canadian visa application was rejected, wanted to apply to universities in New Zealand.

"UCW's delay in refunding me meant I could not seek admission elsewhere," Harsh, who requested that his last name be kept anonymous, said. "I've lost a year." Another student had a similar complaint - that UCW took months refunding his fees after he opted out.

UCW blamed the delay on the students, claiming that they had initially provided incorrect bank details.

But email correspondence between the students and top UCW officials - including then Vice Chancellor Verna Shephard - clearly establishes that the Canadian university accepted its mistake. Shephard, in an email to Harsh, even apologized.

At least two students accused Thakkar of not informing them accurately about UCW - which is part of the Eminata for-profit group of educational institutions run by a man convicted in 1993 in California for violating laws and duping students at a computer school he ran.

"We thought the agent would help us navigate the maze of universities available to pick what was best for us," said a student who opted out of UCW after gaining admission, and is now studying in the UK. "But what I realized is that it's best to do the research oneself."

Thakkar told HT that Kanish Doshi was the first and only student he ever tried sending to UCW, and insisted that he had severed links with UCW once he read and heard about students' concerns on the varsity.

But email correspondence between Thakkar and two other students - including Harsh - confirms that Apex Consultants mediated their admission into UCW.

"For me, student satisfaction is most important," Thakkar said.

In the long run, student satisfaction is indeed critical for an education consultancy to thrive, Chopra, the Delhi-based consultant said. Started in 1995 by the couple that had returned from Australia where they worked as professionals, The Chopras occupy a large office space in Nehru Place's expensive commercial complex. About 20 new universities approach the firm every year, and thousands of students pass through their doors, seeking advice from dozens of counselors who sit behind neatly ordered desks in a wooden paneled room the size of an Olympic pool.

"We verify the universities we tie up with," Chopra said. "We wouldn't have been trusted by students for the best part of two decades if we didn't care for them."

But, Chopra admitted, several "brick in the wall" agents have also opened up their shops to cater to students.

"I have seen SUVs in Punjab that help students forge documents for applications at the back of the cars," he said. "I have been a strong advocate of ethics in this industry, but it takes some time for some consultants to realise that they cannot compromise on the interest of students without hurting themselves in the bargain."

For students "recruited" before agents realize this business truth, it is too late.