The hearts of careers professionals who have long wanted to do more for their international students will be beating more hopefully following the Secretary of State for Education’s recent call for greater transparency on international student outcomes.
Whilst Careers Services can demonstrate examples of excellent practise in supporting this cohort, many are frustrated that they cannot do more. A spotlight on our international graduate destinations could lead to a long overdue investment in international student employability support. The relationship between Graduate Outcomes and TEF perfectly demonstrates this.
We invest in what we’re judged by
Although Graduate Outcomes collects information on international student destinations, only home undergraduate destinations are given any weight in TEF. Universities therefore inevitably direct funding towards activities which will improve domestic outcomes. Because international outcomes are counted – but don’t actually count – it can be a real struggle to get funding for the specialist support our students need and deserve.
We don’t yet know if greater transparency equals greater clout. The Secretary of State for Education’s letter to the OfS states “such data should also inform the approach the OfS takes to setting and monitoring compliance with its quality requirements”. Could this mean weighting international student outcomes in TEF?
TEF isn’t exactly universally loved so it might seem perverse to welcome the prospect of introducing yet another dimension. But whilst TEF remains a fact of higher education life, surely we should have a system that doesn’t encourage investment in one group of students over another. Particularly when international students’ course fees can be twice that of domestic students’, and OfS are in my view quite rightly being told to “prioritise work supporting students as empowered consumers” (that letter again).
On that consumer note, it’s worth saying that when HEPI, in this year’s Student Academic Experience Survey, asked students about the most reasonable use of tuition fees, investment in careers services and resources rated quite highly, at 46% comfortably in the top half of the list. Also that international students, the majority of whom choose to study abroad to better their career prospects, are least satisfied that they have received value for money.
Tackling the data
Assuming OfS and the sector got behind weighting international outcomes, how could it be done? Graduate Outcomes has set a 25% response rate target for non-EU domiciled graduates. This might not always be enough for a robust sample but there should be ways around this. Universities’ international student cohort sizes vary considerably, so perhaps only those over a certain threshold should fall within scope. And it’s interesting that historically it’s been more difficult to collect a larger data set.
In theory, given all the technology now at our disposal, where a graduate lives shouldn’t affect how easy or otherwise it is to get in touch with them. Sir Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile springs to mind: have we become too used to 25% as the “realistic” target? Could we maximise sample sizes by being a bit more culturally clever in the way we seek to maintain contact with our overseas graduates.
In China, WeChat is more than a messaging app, it’s part of the national psyche, used for almost every aspect of Chinese life, from shopping to booking hospital appointments. You’re far more likely to get a response to a WeChat message than an email. To what extent have HESA trialled using WeChat to communicate with Chinese graduates, who are after all by far the largest international cohort?
It will be interesting to see how OfS respond to the latest missive and how careers services and the wider higher education sector react to greater scrutiny. There is much debate around the purpose of higher education, but this aim within Bristol’s current strategy would surely resonate with universities everywhere: “we will provide an education that enables all our students to become the best that they can be.”
Without better understanding what our international students end up doing, and how this reflects their ambitions, how will we know we are achieving this?