Globalism and higher education ride the storm

It would be easy to believe that the rise in populism and anti-intellectualism is a high tide that could wash away globalism and higher education.

But even the fiercest waves are unlikely to wash away belief in the value of an international education or the need for highly skilled graduates. As the tide recedes, we will be left with fundamental truths about the economic realities of the Asian Century and its impact on graduate employability and careers.

Despite their anti-immigration rhetoric, increasing insularity and visa restrictions, the US and UK governments have enabled, respectively, benevolent post-study work visas and significant increases in OPT. Moreover, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledges that the Tories aim to create a system which would attract the “brightest and the best from around the world” and the President of the US has confirmed the need to consider developing a “merit-based immigration system that makes sense for a modern economy”. Both countries seem to be building a path for high performing international students and talented immigrants while reducing the number who arrive to do lower-paid jobs.

These policy decisions could be taken to imply that the expectation is that less-skilled jobs will be filled by an under-achieving national population – and that the education systems cannot grow sufficient local talent to meet economic needs. It’s a provocative hypothesis but one which reveals some truths about the way that rising student debt and low graduate wages are fuelling disenchantment and lower educational achievement among home students.

I’m a believer

Graduate debt in the US presently stands at $1.4 trillion with an average borrower owing $37,000 on their graduation and a recent Gallup poll suggested only 41% of 18 to 29-year-old adults in the US believed higher education to be “very important”. Only half of all Americans believe that a college education is “very important” – a dramatic decrease from the 70% who said it was very important in 2013. Recently published data in the UK shows two-thirds of universities and colleges saw an increase in the number of student drop-outs between 2011/12 and 2016/17.

For those who believe in higher education and international citizens, the Asian countries are leading the way and have shown their willingness to invest in their young people. Over 8.34 million graduates emerged from university in China this year and they are helping to fuel an innovative and creative economy. Despite economic slowdowns and talk of trade wars it is worth remembering that a GDP growth around 6% would have most Western Finance Ministers weeping for joy.

It is also clear that the battle for global talent is an international phenomenon, and western economies will not have it all their own way. China eased post-study work for foreign graduates in 2017, Japan made life easier for skilled foreign workers and Malaysia launched a new visa for block-chain tech professionals in 2019. The growing competition for a workforce is beginning to reflect the intensity that used to be reserved for globally mobile international students.

In “Powering the Asian Century”, ACG’s research demonstrated that international students who return to Asian countries after study abroad earn more over the long term than non-graduates and home educated graduates. Little wonder that according to an HSBC report in 2017, “Asian countries are among the most outward-looking” with four of the top five countries where parents are considering a university education abroad being India (62%,), Indonesia (61%), China (59%), and Hong Kong (52%). It is surely only a matter of time before parents in the UK, US, Canada and Australia realize that their children’s lives will extend into the period when Asia is the heartbeat of the world’s economy.

I’m outta here

There are signs that students in the West are beginning to vote with their feet over 341,000 US students studied abroad for academic credit in 2017/18 which is 27% more than the number of new international students enrolling to study in the US that year. It’s a growing trend, and suggests a recognition that higher education with international experience might pay dividends over the longer term. IIE President and CEO Allan Goodman commented, “The record numbers of.……U.S. students studying abroad mean that more students than ever before are being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.”

Universities should commit to an international agenda for graduate employability – but it is far too common for them to lack the tools and resources to support domestic employability, let alone international employability. At the 2019 AGCAS conference in the UK (the annual meeting of Directors of University Careers Services and their teams) there was no mention of “International students” and provision of specific careers services to them as an audience. No wonder that in the recent UUKi report “What do international graduates do?” it stated that only 2% of international students found their university careers services useful in helping them find a job.

For Western governments and their universities, the real answer is to understand and respect the way that economic power and demand for graduates is likely to change over the coming years. It will not be enough to rely on short-term visa fixes to satisfy a hunger for international talent that fills skilled jobs and financial salvation to the university sector. For all students, whether home-grown or from abroad, there needs to be strategic development and investment that optimises their potential as global citizens with potentially global careers.

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