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More than 80 per cent of overseas education advisers in Hong Kong are agents for foreign schools, Consumer Council says

Findings raise questions over the impartiality of the sector

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 5:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 June, 2018, 10:27pm

More than 80 per cent of Hong Kong consultants offering advice on overseas education are directly representing foreign institutions and receive commissions from them for enrolling students, the city’s consumer watchdog said on Wednesday.

The Consumer Council said these agents received 10 to 15 per cent of their customers’ first-year tuition fee from the institutions they represented. Based on the fees charged by a UK university, this commission could be about HK$20,000.

Yet despite the reward awaiting them, some agents refused to help students with issues such as visa applications, the council said.

“As long as they have some form of reward from overseas education institutions, they may not be working in the best interest of students when they recommend programmes, courses or schools to the students,” the council’s chief executive Gilly Wong Fung-han said.

The findings came after the council last year surveyed 29 agents, with 25 confirming they were retained to recruit students for specific schools.

Wong said it would be hard to quantify the impact of the agents’ actions, but claimed it would be significant.

“It’s the life development of an individual and also … the quality of Hong Kong talent if the students return to work.”

In one case, the watchdog recounted, a female student who failed to get a visa to pursue a culinary career in France had sought help from an agency, which earlier guaranteed it would secure the necessary approval for her.

But the agency advised her to instead enrol in a two-year language course in the United States, giving the reason that it was not affiliated with the cooking school.

The watchdog also conducted 39 mystery shopping visits. It found that none of the firms showed any price lists unless consumers directly asked them, raising additional concerns about information transparency.

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Professor Wong Kam-fai, who chairs the council’s Trade Practices and Consumer Complaints Review Committee, said other victims had experiences similar to the case cited and were not well protected under contract law.

This was so, he explained, because a contract may not have been formed because the firm charges no service fee.

Wong urged officials to work with the industry to strengthen its code of conduct. Wong said legislation might be necessary in the long term.

He added the firms should promote the use of service contracts and set up a complaint mechanism to better protect consumers. None of the service providers visited or surveyed provided one.

The watchdog advises parents and students to cross-check firms with their affiliated overseas institutions before they decide to take their advice and make any decisions.