reference checking

Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula is an Associate Professor in the School of Business at Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) in New Zealand. Pii-Tuulia has published a number of journal articles on education agent management and regulation. A book she co-edited on the topic of Student Recruitment Agents in International Education was published in 2023.

Due diligence is a critical part of selecting new education agents. Due diligence should be conducted by education providers before appointing agents. Other actors, such as aggregators and industry bodies with agent certification (or similar) schemes, should also conduct agent due diligence. Education providers should consider using a number of information collection methods, which might (depending on the resources available), include a review of databases, online searches, examination of agent websites, social media content and printed materials, scheduling office visits, facilitating knowledge tests/assessments, mystery shopping, and reference/background checking.

All methods of collecting information have their own strengths and limitations. This article focuses on one aspect of due diligence, namely reference checking. Agent management guidelines provide some guidance on what reference checking should look like, including the number of references, and preferred characteristics of those who should be asked to provide references (e.g., located in the same country/similar type of institution/length of relationship). Some also specify sample questions and how to collect references (e.g. interviews, digital surveys). However, some aspects are not addressed. For instance, how these reference checks are conducted is important to ensure validity and reliability. Otherwise, poor information can be used in deciding to appoint (or not to appoint) an agent. Some of the challenges when using reference checking are listed below:

Self-nominated referees: agent provides names and contact details of referees

These can be highly problematic due to a couple of key reasons. It is highly likely that agents will select education providers/people who they know will provide a positive reference. Hence, the information collected may not be representative of the majority of clients. There are also situations where conflicts of interest exist, i.e., individuals working for education providers may have personal relationships with agents. Moreover, providers need to ensure that the person offering the reference is who they purport to be to reduce the likelihood of fake/paid references.

All reference checks (including those solicited by providers reference/background checks)

A number of further challenges exist. For instance, the referee may have limited knowledge of the agent’s true behavior: some education providers have poor monitoring practices, so they may not be aware of existing problems, such as mis/disinformation, fraud, or other unwanted behaviors.

Leniency effect/embarrassment/different values: referees may want to downplay negative information or they may not want to admit some of the issues that have arisen. In some situations, the referee may be aware of (or even incentivise) unethical recruitment practices, but is, of course, unlikely to disclose this information.

Different scope/time: the education agent might serve some markets (countries/types of institution) well, but it is not known whether this experience translates to a different context. Also, as with other evidence, it is good to note that past information does not always align with present practices.

Self-interest:  the referee may, or may not want the agency to be appointed (e.g., other institutions can be considered as competitors, or partnering with a high profile institution may be seen as a positive development), which may lead to a negative/positive review.

Soliciting references/background checks from students (or parents)

Many guidelines also recommend soliciting references from other stakeholders, such as students. There are a number of challenges that may cause bias, such as cultural differences, language skills as well as ‘bounded reality’ of students, which means that education providers must be careful when collecting and making sense of student feedback. Furthermore, if agents nominate referees, the same issues as highlighted in the self-nominated referees section apply.

References when using aggregators

If providers decide to work with aggregators/master agents, it is unlikely that they can conduct reference/background checks on the sub-agent network. The use of aggregators adds an additional layer of information asymmetries, making effective due diligence challenging. At the very least, education providers should inquire with aggregators about the reference checks and other due diligence processes they employ when appointing (sub-)agents – see for example 5 questions to ask an education agent aggregator about their sub-agents .

Key Considerations

This list of issues is not conclusive, but rather highlights the variety of challenges that can exist. Reference checking processes can easily turn into a tick-box exercise, where institutions may possess “evidence” of conducting reference checks, yet the validity and reliability of this evidence may be questionable.  Those involved in due diligence should carefully consider how they collect references. This requires an understanding of the issues discussed in this article and other factors, such as whether the use of unstructured/structured formats, or a combination of both. Education providers also need to specify the type of information to be gathered: this should be aligned with institutional values and priorities (e.g. volume vis-à-vis ethical practices). Finally, education providers must ensure that the individuals involved possess the necessary training and competency in reference checking. Well-conducted reference checks can provide important insights. However, the HRM literature has underscored that while a well-conducted reference checking process can provide useful insights, its predictive validity is not the highest. Therefore, in the context of a thorough due diligence process, multiple sources of evidence should be utilised, with reference checks playing a secondary role.

Working with education education agents?

AgentBee’s education agent due diligence solution supports educational institutions to implement best practice education agent due diligence processes.

Educational institutions can use it to:

  • protect students – conduct initial and ongoing due diligence checks on education agents.
  • protect your brand – detect cases of unauthorised agents using your institution’s name, logo or other IP without permission.

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