International students put employability at top of the wish list

Student Futures commissioner Mary Stuart joins forces with international student rep Amina Akugri, and Liz Shutt, to discover what international students need post-pandemic

Mary Stuart is director of leadership development at Minerva and was vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln


Amina Akugri is a former Vice President International of the University of Lincoln Students’ Union


Liz Shutt is Director of Policy at the University of Lincoln and Greater Lincolnshire LEP

International students have long been a vital part of UK higher education. They bring different perspectives and understanding to our classrooms and laboratories, and they help us to grow in understanding of the diverse world we live in.

All students have found the last few years challenging, but for international students, who travelled during the global pandemic and then lived so far away from their homes, at this very difficult time, the disruption and isolation caused has been especially acute.

As such we considered it important to explore the specific issues for international students as part of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, supported by Wonkhe. We set up a sub-commission looking at the specific issues faced by international students. This ran last summer and we have published a report, based on in-depth focus groups with 60 international students from seven different universities, and the insight of our sub-commissioners.

The International Education Strategy, published in 2019 and updated in 2021, set out a series of government interventions which add up to a strongly supportive policy environment for international student recruitment particularly with the introduction of a new Graduate post-study work route in 2021.

This was an important jumping off point for the sub-commission’s discussions, which sought to answer the question: where are the next leapfrog opportunities to build a world-leading international student experience that capitalises on the current positive environment?

It’s not (totally) about the pandemic

In many ways coronavirus has exacerbated existing issues for international students, shining a brighter light on concerns that have been raised and looked at previously such as anxiety around visas and immigration, financial support and feelings of loneliness and isolation.

At the same time, sadly, it had a levelling effect between international and home students as home students have been exposed to the disorientation that has always been part of the territory for international students.

And yet, the experience of the pandemic was not the most pressing issue that surfaced through our focus group discussions – it was employability support.

Overall, there was a huge emphasis on careers support throughout the international student journey: as a key driver behind decisions and concerns pre-arrival, in relation to part-time work and placements during study, and to support graduate careers.

Employment support both during and after study is a huge opportunity area. The UK sector should seek to develop this as a flagship pillar of the UK international student experience. We have made several specific recommendations to that end, but overall our suggestion is that this should all be pulled together into a coordinated national campaign.

At university level, urgent consideration needs to be given to the allocation of resources to support increased employability support throughout the student journey.

Pre arrival

International students seeking to study in the UK will feel welcomed, supported and reassured from day one of the application process.

International students told us:

  • anxiety about embarking on study overseas has a significant impact on all aspects of the experience pre-arrival
  • communications need to be more attuned to this, more responsive and more tailored

Recommendations to help address these concerns include that universities should review their pre-arrival support and communication from the student perspective, they should establish a “no-surprises” approach on all the costs involved in studying alongside the financial support available in pre-application communications, and also include employability information in pre-application communications.

While at university

International students will benefit from the full university experience, in its widest sense, with tailored support where appropriate to recognise the additional challenges of studying in a different country.

International students told us that:

  • they need more careers and employability support while they are at university
  • social interaction is a core part of the experience; without it they can feel unsupported and alone

Our recommendations include that universities should provide dedicated international placement officers who work with local and national companies to coordinate existing opportunities, including knowledge exchange partnerships, as well as finding new opportunities for international students.

We also suggest that government could develop a coordinated approach to regional trade support that will also enable placement opportunities for international students.

Post-study

The Graduate route should be backed up by a rich array of options for international students with proactive and ongoing support as their early career develops.

International students told us that:

  • they want more support on graduate employment
  • UK employers, especially those listed on the sponsored list, need increased awareness about the skilled visa and graduate route
  • they want more support to find graduate opportunities back home

We recommend that universities should continue to provide dedicated employability support as international graduates enter the early stages of their careers whether that is within the UK or abroad.

Government should develop a proactive and sector specific campaign targeting employers as part of the UK International Education Strategy.

It is also critical that universities have access to robust representative international graduate outcomes data either through HESA’s Graduate Outcomes or alternative sources. The sub-commission had significant concerns about the potential impact of the recent decision by HESA to cease calling international students to complete their Graduate Outcomes survey.

Finally, we suggest that there should be sector level collaboration to develop a national level resource that supports international graduates wishing to return home and find employment. This could provide a significant improvement in support.

Running our sub-commission in the midst of the pandemic has allowed us to look afresh at the international student experience. We listened to what international students and sabbatical officers told us about their experience of the UK environment and their hopes and expectations for the future.

The resulting recommendations are direct and to the point and we hope that this report will spark further improvements in provision for our international students in the future.

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