Even in Kuala Lumpur, where I am based, I find myself having conversations about the sorry state of British politics and the inability of the government to take any policy decisions while in Brexit limbo.
Imagine my surprise to see the news that “finally” UK post-study work visas have been extended to two years. However, as champagne corks pop among staff at Universities UK, the British Universities International Liaison Association (BUILA) and various other international education lobbyists, I cannot help but reflect that even with this great news, the obsession with post-study work hides a bigger reality.
Fly away home
Progressive policies on post-study work visas have increasingly been positioned as the foundation for long-term international student growth in UK higher education. It’s a seductive argument that gets a lot of attention but ignores the fact that, according to the Migration Advisory Committee, 96 per cent of international students return to their home country after graduation. Finding ways to understand and develop their graduates’ careers in the main source countries should therefore be a core element of a university’s strategy for building a sustainable competitive advantage and points of differentiation.
There is a real danger that even following this momentous decision for the UK international HE sector the lobbying attention will switch to demands for enhanced routes to citizenship for students. But it is always possible for more aggressive or flexible competitors to gain short-term recruitment benefits by improving their visa policies. And even if the numbers staying in the UK to work doubled, over 90 per cent would return home and it is by improving their future that an unassailable reputation can be developed.
A number of factors suggest why higher education providers have been obsessed with something that affects so few international students while ignoring the desire of most, for employability back in their home county:
- government policy is always a good scapegoat particularly in tough times;
- an increasingly competitive international landscape creates ‘policy envy’ and simplistic explanations of the factors influencing student recruitment;
- being seen to lobby government is a highly visible way of showing your commitment to International students;
- improving international student employability is hard and many universities have not invested the time, attention or money needed to understand what action to take;
- some universities, regrettably, are focused on their local interests and have no real commitment to international graduate outcomes.
There are also some sound practical reasons why strategy and activity have lagged in the area of international student employability and careers. These include:
- the historical difficulty of establishing sound, longitudinal career data on which to base policy;
- few metrics have existed to benchmark and monitor International employability;
- a lack of objective data on leading employers of UK graduates in our major overseas markets;
- most university careers services have not historically had a remit or been resourced for international careers information advice and guidance (CIAG) and according to the recent UUKi International Graduate Outcomes 2019 report only two per cent of international students use the service.
Against this background it is unfortunate that Graduate Outcomes, the successor to Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE), is probably neither timely nor fit for purpose. It is not due out for at least another six months, if not longer, and will have no impact on 2020’s recruitment cycle or graduating cohort. More troubling is that targets for international graduate responses have been reduced from 40 per cent to 25 per cent from the previous DLHE benchmark. It seems unlikely that it will produce sufficient international employability data to inform investment in the career opportunities of the 96 per cent returning home.
A potent mix
There are, however, emerging solutions for progressive universities who want to build their international reputation through labour market information and international employer engagement which, in turn, influences course portfolio development and graduate outcomes. These include working with businesses that have embraced artificial intelligence, big data, social media to build relevant datasets that inform partnerships between universities, employers and government agencies.
While Australian institutions are taking the lead on the international employability agenda, a conference in Melbourne earlier this year, the recent campaigns focused on international graduate employability in Western Australian and work by the University of Sydney and Macquarie University are some notable examples. Some leading UK institutions are already actively engaged in working with external providers to understand the areas where their culture, course portfolio and historical recruitment patterns give their graduates advantages on returning to their home country.
Along the way they are reconnecting with influential and high-net worth alumni as well as developing a powerful story about the way their brand is recognised by employers overseas. It’s a potent mix of data-led insight, human-interest and economic impact which puts them ahead of the pack and underpins the development of subsequent student recruitment campaigns. They recognise that as international students become more sophisticated in how they choose a university the vast majority will focus on their chance of a good job on returning home rather than post-study work visas.
In Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, Mr Spock tells Captain James T. Kirk that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one” before sacrificing himself to save the USS Enterprise. Similarly, it is reasonable to argue that the needs of the 4 per cent are important but should not impair opportunities to make life better for the 96 per cent. But, just as Spock’s demise in the film is not quite what it seems, a shift in emphasis to support the majority of students does not mean the termination of support for the minority.
While university reach is not yet intergalactic it is vital to their global reach and reputation that they take international graduate outcomes seriously. Competition will only intensify and truly global reach and reputation will increasingly be based on the outcomes of students returning home. Good results are a sustainable, competitive advantage which, in turn, will become a fundamental driver of future student recruitment.