How can we make good on the promise to support international graduate employability?

International students are vital to the UK HE sector.

The opportunity to study alongside international students gives UK-domiciled students a global network, increases awareness of cultural sensitivities and better prepares them for working in a global environment. The economic output generated for the UK through spending by international students and their visitors is estimated at £25.8bn, and the fee income from Chinese students alone is likely to account for more than 10 per cent of all income at a growing number of UK universities.

We know that employability is a critical consideration for international students making decisions about where to study. Competition for international students is fierce. The UK’s number of international students has remained flat while competitor countries have experienced double-digit growth. The introduction of the graduate route and likely removal of the £30,000 tier two salary threshold signals the intention to position the UK as welcoming to global talent – a reputation that has been damaged somewhat over the last few years – and is clearly part of the attempt to meet the International Education Strategy target of 600,000 international students in the UK by 2030.

We cannot rely on the new graduate route alone to enhance international graduate employability. Many international students will want to return home or move elsewhere for work or further study after graduation. The international graduates that do want to gain graduate employment in the UK will still need to compete for roles against UK-domiciled graduates in a graduate labour market that shows signs of stagnation. We risk decreased international student satisfaction if their expectations of post-study work are high but they become underemployed. Australia is a case in point.

If we want to maintain the UK’s reputation as one of the best places for people from around the world to live, study and work, then it is vital that universities offer the support and opportunities that international students need to get the outcomes they want. In collaboration with UUKi, UKCISA and Coventry University, we set out to understand how university careers services specifically support the careers and employability of their international students; identify best practice and areas for improvement.

All that glitters

International student and graduate employability is a priority, or expected to become a priority very soon, in over 80% of the universities surveyed in this research. With the potential for expansion of student numbers in markets like India, where we saw decreased recruitment after the removal of post-study work in 2012, it’s tempting to invest in shiny projects that look good from a student recruitment perspective (new building, anyone?). But, first, we should take stock. What promises do we make to our international students, and how well are we delivering against those promises?

The reality is, we don’t know. Very few of the universities involved in this research understand what their international graduates go on to do after leaving the institution. It’s neither ground-breaking nor exciting but bringing international recruitment, support and careers services together to have meaningful conversations about what their international students want to do and what support would work best to enable them to achieve this, is probably a good place to start.

Our research shows an incredible wealth of support on offer from UK universities, from country-specific careers advisers to ring-fenced internships specifically for international students. But we aren’t good as a sector at knowing what works best for our diverse international student population. You can make the argument that since international students pay considerably more for the same educational experience as home students, and generate vast income for universities, they should be able to access support aligned to their specific needs. However, careers services have not routinely received specific increases in funding in line with an increase in international student numbers. Only 28% of services involved in this research feel able to meet the current level of demand from international students for careers and employability support. Moreover, there are widespread expectations that demand will increase further with the re-introduction of post-study work.

International students are not the only group that would benefit from tailored support. Disabled graduates are less likely to be in employment than their non-disabled peers. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have poorer graduate outcomes than their more advantaged peers. BAME students, care leavers, estranged students and students wanting to live in regions with lower employment opportunities all face their own challenges. Careers services work hard to try and provide tailored, effective support to all these groups to level the playing field after graduation, whilst regularly being asked to ‘do more for less’.

May there be metrics

We frequently argue that we cannot measure the value of the university experience by salary or outcomes alone, but the truth of the matter is that institutions have thus far traditionally been assessed on the outcomes of home undergraduates. This inevitably prioritises university investment in this area, sometimes at the expense of other cohorts. More focus on international graduate outcomes could incentivise universities to invest in support for international graduates. On the other hand, this could lead to a laborious process that only serves to increase competition between institutions and does not tell us much about whether international graduates are truly experiencing positive outcomes for them. Action 5 of the International Education Strategy sets out the government’s plan to “Work with the sector to enhance the evidence base on international graduate outcomes and to monitor the UK’s comparative position with respect to international student recruitment and the international student experience”. As a sector, we need to have a strong voice in how we monitor and use international graduate outcomes, or we risk being landed with metrics that don’t truly measure the value of a UK-education.

Collaboration not competition

Value for money in higher education is high on the political agenda and news stories about low value degrees or perceived broken promises can cause real damage to the image that we want to portray – that the UK is the best place for a high-quality education that results in real return on investment. In our research, we make the case that it is in the interest of all UK universities to pool resources and invest in shared international labour market information, support for employers (UK and overseas) to better access the international student talent pool and research into what is actually effective for developing international student employability.

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