The recent report by the UPP Foundation Student Futures sub-commission, looking at the specific issues faced by international students, reported that they need more careers and employability support whilst studying here. For many of us this did not come as a surprise.
The diversity of the international student body gets forgotten across the student life cycle. The international student journey should be mapped around key milestones – applying, accepting, travelling here, establishing themselves, acclimatising, studying, assessments, looking for part-time and full-time work.
There is an expectation that international students who come here to study must adapt to our systems. We barely acknowledge that culture shock works both ways and overlook the fact that many international students need to re-culturalise back into their own country after their studies. The international student’s needs evolve along this journey, and so the employability support they are offered along the way should be mapped against these milestones.
Where are the gaps? How can these be filled? How can the support offered be more consistent? Questions exploring how we can support these students to develop their career in their home country, or how can we empower them to overcome the challenges they will meet post-graduation, are not asked frequently enough.
Diversity and obstacles
It is tempting to consider international students as one homogenous employability group and overlook the different needs of international undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students.
But these three groups each require discrete types of career support – and careers services are currently configured for undergraduates mainly, postgraduates possibly and for doctoral students hardly.
The UK’s one-year postgraduate Master’s offer is very competitive but we still have to crack the nut of preparing students successfully for the world after their studies. Careers services, which have typically been deemed as responsible, need to up their game, but a more integrated approach involving faculties, student services, the international office and others will bring long-term success. That requires a programme of employability which mirrors the teaching curriculum on offer.
If postgraduate international students are not suitably supported, they will struggle to get a job. When such students fail to land appropriate employment after their studies here, they will share their disappointment with their peers at home. This will damage that course’s and institution’s reputation in their home country. Word of mouth is powerful.
Timescales to support international postgraduate students are tight. International postgraduate students starting in January 2021 will normally have student visas that expire at the end of May 2022. To be eligible for a graduate visa, they need to have successfully completed the course covered by their current student visa or Tier 4 (General) student visa.
Our existing arrangement of panels and award boards might mean that the award to demonstrate they have successfully completed their course is given shortly before their visas expire. There is very little time for the students who do not complete their courses successfully to navigate that set of circumstances.
Onwards and upwards
At a policy level, there needs to be a greater understanding of international graduate employment destinations and career trajectories. Many institutions’ careers services have been established (and are managed) to help home students get jobs here. The sector in general, and people working in careers and employability services in particular, need to grow their understanding and appreciation of the different job market dynamics abroad.
There should be a particular focus on emerging markets where there is robust demand for graduates, especially those with higher degrees gained in UK universities. Surprisingly, very few people have been trained to support students enter employment in these growth economies. Careers advisers often look after wide portfolios of (potentially unrelated) degree disciplines. Many do not have the time, resources, knowledge or support to respond to the diverse profile of student cohorts in their patch and their respective employment needs.
International students’ make a (considerable) investment in a UK education to kick start their future career. In my experience they are seldom engaged with as individuals. We rarely seek to understand (or perhaps we misunderstand?) what drivers – beyond the institution or the course – were behind their choice to study here and how different these drivers may be to those of home students.
Research shows, for example, that Chinese students have relatively low awareness and perceptions of how extra-curricular activities could be useful for instance. We need to take the time to develop a more sophisticated understanding of international students’ lives and how they have evolved. Having worked closely with some generation Z Chinese students, I have noticed they are more strong-willed and independent than previous generations.
The sector needs to encourage more dialogue with international students – they provide insights into their own countries. Around 44 percent of Nigeria’s population is aged 14 or under. It is Africa’s most populous country. Educating and shaping these young, bright minds can be a window into ways to solve the pressing issues in Africa. We need to encourage international students’ contribution to the debate and invite them to be more active co-creators in their own study experience. Too little attention is given to how they can enrich the study experience for their cohort. Many bring insights that can benefit Anglophone universities where familiarity with literature in other languages is often limited. Multilingual students who can access research and publications in languages other than English bring a knowledge and perspective that is not tapped into enough.
In today’s workplace, and especially in multinational companies, it is becoming increasingly important to be able to work collaboratively with people from different cultures and backgrounds. The foundation for that ability can be learnt in our universities.