Are professional opportunities within international students’ grasp?

For home students, we accept that HE is partly about career building - but are similar supports there for international students? Brenda Hernandez explains the struggle for professional opportunities

Brenda Hernandez is the founder of and a UAL Central Saint Martins MA graduate from Mexico

Last year, 23.8 per cent of students in the UK’s higher education institutions were international students – 15.1 per cent of undergraduates and 45.8 per cent all postgraduates.

With overseas tuition being often 3x that of home students’ tuition fees, it’s difficult to accept that, in exchange, international students receive a fraction of the benefits of being a student in the UK.

That’s even more difficult to accept when top UK universities publicise they wouldn’t stay afloat without overseas tuition fees.

The cost-benefit ratio for being an international student in the UK then becomes complex. Is the price of overseas tuition fair in exchange for the promise of higher quality education when professional opportunities are restricted?

The idea of needing to gain professional experience is very much accepted as a part of the overall educational experience for home students. But it can feel like international students are expected only to engage in the academic aspects of a course – and there is “suspicion” that international students trying to build their career are somehow economic, rather than education migrants – as if there is an easy or meaningful distinction between the two.

Home students have endless options when it comes to working, but international students lack them due to student visa rules that restrict hours worked per week and self-employment and by many employers’ reluctance to hire an international student over a home student due to the potential hurdles of dealing with one’s immigration status.

This isn’t a home vs. international student issue, it’s a systematic issue fostered by institutions that ignore that many students come to this country to explore professional opportunities, and instead sees them with a big GBP sign to subsidise higher education.

The struggle is real

I held the status of international student for five years in the US and in the UK for one, plus two years on a Graduate visa. In eight years I’ve encountered barriers in seeking a basic income to support myself while studying, and became lucky, and grateful, when I successfully held jobs in my field in both countries.

This despite my career being in the creative industries, which has faced enough governmental funding cuts and has a an workforce that heavily relies on freelance work for employment. This, compounded with the increase in contract work, has made freelancing a major option for students who seek flexibility in finding paid projects that can adapt to their skills and time – a major option that I wish I’ve had while studying.

One of the reasons that freelancing is restricted under the student visa may be that students would need to properly set themselves up as sole-trader taxpayers to adequately pay tax and that self-employment doesn’t fall under the purposes of being a student.

But that doesn’t seem to be a barrier for Australia and Canada, two of the UK’s major competitors for international education. Australia and Canada allow self-employment under their student visas as long as the student complies with the rest of the visa conditions and taxpayers’ regulations, and it could become a deciding factor when an IS chooses where to study abroad.

The UK is missing potential talented students to other countries under this restriction challenges its goal to foster a highly-skilled student population – one that’s already growing at a slower rate due to competitor countries and EU students opting out of UK’s higher education since Brexit.

As the self-employed population in the UK rises, with restrictions in place, the UK’s young freelancing population and fully employed young adults is consequently made up of two groups: people with UK citizenship and in settlement status. How does this reflect the cultural richness among all students in the UK?

Not all young

UK higher education institutions seemingly assume university students fit the mould of being 18 to 24 years of age. This is not the case. Students from abroad come to the UK at all different points of their life to purse an education; they often come to make career changes, with their families, with established professions, with previous degrees, and go far beyond the stereotype of a university student.

These students are not considered in the framing of work restrictions for student visas as the limited employment opportunities they get are not ones that easily support their professional needs. This could lead to underemployed talent and to international students accepting jobs that don’t reward them fairly.

In many occasions, jobs can go underpaid and even unpaid by employers who don’t value the work, and with international students in a vulnerable position in the job market, employers can see an international student as someone who they can afford to pay less.

Consequently, many creative international students accept unfair and often exploitative jobs as these could at least expand their resume in the hopes to remain competitive in future job markets – a hardship in the international student experience that is greatly overlooked.

Even when international students gain the education, skills and qualifications needed to follow a career in the UK, they’re not guaranteed a stay in the country beyond the expiration date of their student visa. The recently introduced two to three-year Graduate visa offers a great option to all students wishing to stay in the UK beyond their studies – that is, if the student is able to afford the £822 application fee plus a healthcare surcharge of £624 per year of the visa’s validity.

Assuming an international student stays for two years after their studies, they would pay £2,070 in one go. This is after their hefty tuition fees and covering their costs of living. The expectation of being able to afford a stay in the UK is a stretch – with financial limitations closing the doors to many students who would’ve otherwise stayed in the UK.

Accessing opportunities

In my year studying in London at UAL Central Saint Martins, I was extremely lucky to meet talented international students from all backgrounds. Regardless of their financial situation, we shared reasons for being and wanting to stay in the UK post- graduation.

After our studies came to an end, the sudden need for a Graduate visa was a constant conversation, and it was not easy to hear from students who couldn’t stay on the visa due to its inaccessible price or faced other challenges despite intentions to stay working in the UK. We often discussed the barriers we encountered to simply support ourselves outside studying, and saw many home peers have access to opportunities that were not open to us.

It became hard to accept an uneven professional playing field when all else is equal inside the university campus – all else equal except the higher tuition for us, of course.

Hopes are that universities strategise how to improve their support for international students’ professional development and that the UK government recognises that the environment they have fostered for a significant share of their student population does not allow for equal opportunity in employment.

Even with the introduction of the Graduate visa, its awareness has not been widespread nor nurtured as a majority of employers aren’t aware of its use. This is hindering when accounting the economical value international students have added to their institutions.

As international students increasingly contribute a larger share of higher education funding than the government, a fall in enrolments could negatively impact in the higher education sector.

Even with plans to cut back on Student and Graduate visas are in the talks, an increasing international student population in the UK since Brexit remains a reality – and it will be universities’ duty to take on the role of supporting their international student population when the government can’t ensure a sustainable and fair environment.

2 responses to “Are professional opportunities within international students’ grasp?

  1. Truly agree on the limitations international students face while trying to gain professional opportunities. I am currently on a graduate visa and while studying I have had opportunities to work within HR for a good company on unpaid internship. I am currently working with a well known banking company under Business Banking as well but yet struggling to get a good professional opportunities as my current workplace isn’t sponsoring. Many professional companies don’t want to sponsor or have a very high stance on whom to sponsor. They sponsor on a director level and get employees from abroad while they don’t provide opportunities for employees living within the country to grow to that level. I have 3 months left on my visa. I am struggling and confused on how can individuals grow in the country without proper opportunities. You feel good when a company invest in your future. You tend to work better and improve yourself on every level to give it your all when you have employer who supports your growth however there are very less to none firms in UK that have this approach.

  2. Honestly I’m frustrated by the new UK immigration laws. They just scammed international students.

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