An official report into proposed changes to the UK student visa regime has praised the English UK Partner Agency Scheme, and recommended that it should be widely publicised among language centres which sponsor visa students.
The Home Affairs Committee, which includes MPs from Government and Opposition parties in the House of Commons, heard evidence about the role of agents during its enquiry into student visas.
In its report, published yesterday, the committee said: "Whilst we accept that the majority of educational agents are legitimate business people, the importance of the role within student immigration means that UK Border Agency ought to investigate options for tightening up the system.
"These options do not necessarily have to include further regulation but instead publicising available schemes such as the Partner Agency Scheme to Tier 4 sponsors."
Annie Wright, deputy chief executive of English UK, said: "We are really delighted that our scheme has been rated so highly by this official enquiry. We wanted to recognise the commitment that the very best agents have to providing an excellent service for the students and the study centres they work with, and this has been recognised by the Members of Parliament on this committee."
More than 50 agencies have completed the joining process since the Partner Agency Scheme was officially launched in September 2010, and the compulsory seminars will be available online this spring, making it easier for agencies to join without a member of English UK visiting their region.
The report of the Home Affairs Committee noted that the Foreign Office thought it would be too difficult and expensive for the British Council to run its own accreditation scheme for educational agents. There might also be legal issues. In addition, there was "no appetite" from the UK university sector to play a part in such a scheme.
The Home Affairs Committee took evidence from ministers, officials, language centres, universities and their representatives, including English UK, during the three-month enquiry.
The importance of agents to the international student market was raised during an evidence session in Brighton attended by almost 100 representatives from English language centres and universities from all over the country.
The report says it became evident during this session that one of the weaknesses of the current system was "control" of overseas agents.
"We received anecdotal evidence that some were not interested in the intentions of students whereas others actively encouraged 'bogus students'. During a meeting with English language schools, almost all of those 30 present… indicated that they had dismissed at least one educational agent.
"We are aware that English UK currently runs the 'Partner Agency Scheme' which it describes as 'a form of accreditation based upon a) track record of being a reliable, efficient and honest agent (attested by references from a minimum of 5 member centres, plus our own database records) and b) a certain amount of 'knowledge'... Agents have to sign up to a code of practice covering ethical business practices... There is more demand than we can at present accommodate for this, and it is clearly fulfilling a need.'"
Tony Millns, chief executive of English UK told the committee that it was: "in some ways easier for an association like ourselves to set up a scheme of this kind because it is our members who work with agents on a day to day basis, and know which ones are excellent and which merely adequate."