As the Office for Students (OfS) plans to announce its approach to quality assessment in the new year, an area for urgent action is the regulator’s relegation of the employability outcomes of international students who return to their home country in its list of priorities.
HESA’s recent decision to stop calling international students to collect Non-EU Graduate Outcomes data is particularly egregious when the students in question cite employability, graduate outcomes, and career advancement as their primary motivation to study overseas.
With this decision, the UK’s target of 600,000 students by 2030 outlined in the international education strategy, which was updated in February 2021, seems even farther away.
Back in early 2019, then secretary of state Gavin Williamson wrote to OfS stating:
It is critical that international students receive a world-class experience. I would like the OfS to consider what steps it can take to ensure international students feel integrated on campus; are supported in terms of their mental health and wellbeing; and international students receive the employability skills they need and are supported into employment, whether in their home country or the UK. It will, therefore, be critical to ensure the OfS makes public transparent data on the outcomes achieved by international students, including those studying wholly outside the UK, such as it does for domestic students. Such data should also inform the approach the OfS takes to setting and monitoring compliance with its quality requirements.
So it is especially disappointing that this decision is predicated purely on cost – as a result of a request from government to HESA to find a 10 per cent efficiency saving by 2022-23 – and comes despite lobbying from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) and Universities UK International to reconsider the decision.
There’s also a question about the resources invested inside institutions to maintain contact details of international students post-graduation but arguably this speaks to the phenomenon of careers services and graduate outcome operations getting the short end of the stick when it comes to university investment, receiving only a fraction of the funding that is invested in recruiting students.
Whatever the cost saving, it will be inconsequential when one considers the evidence that international students are worth £20 billion to the UK economy, and for the majority their decision to study in the UK is predicated on successful graduate outcomes. Without data to quantify and benchmark international graduate outcomes, UK universities are ill-equipped to demonstrate the value of a UK degree.
The decision to not actively follow up online surveys with telephone interviews will also lead to an even lower sample size than the 25 per cent required to date. It will particularly affect the Asian students who make up the lion’s share of the UK international population.
Outclassed by rivals
This announcement risks relegating the UK to the slow lane when it comes to international student recruitment at the same time as Australia and New Zealand are increasing efforts in the area of employability, showcasing international alumni and their successful careers. This will prove critical to the southern hemisphere to kickstart their international student recruitment campaigns when borders open fully in 2022.
The recent launch of the Study Australia website focuses on alumni networks and employability of Australian graduates.
It is understood that Australian universities plan to invite careers professionals to accompany them on overseas recruitment tours. This initiative was successfully piloted before the global pandemic and was a great success at undergraduate recruitment fairs where parents are particularly focused on job prospects.
Education New Zealand is already discussing options when it comes to collecting international graduate outcomes data. New Zealand, like other nations, is looking to gain a competitive advantage when recruiting overseas, with the additional benefit of tracking the New Zealand diaspora living and working overseas.
By stepping away from collecting data, the UK is wasting a golden opportunity to invest and become a sector leader at the moment that key rivals are struggling to recover from their self-imposed pandemic exile.
In the absence of a national strategy, the sector will need to consider alternative data strategies, and should look for ways to invest in representative, robust, benchmarked graduate outcomes data for its major student markets.
With the world pivoting eastwards, for the UK to maintain and grow its share of an increasingly competitive international environment, this is no time for budgetary salami-slicing.