This blog was kindly contributed by Louise Nicol, Founder of the Asia Careers Group.
The 2000s have seen pandemics such as SARS, global economic disruption with the financial crisis of 2008 and substantial government policy including the removal of the post-study work (PSW) visa in 2012. All three disrupted the flow of international students to the UK, impacted the internationalisation agenda and negatively impacted the bottom line of Universities.
Covid-19 is a threat of a different order. In previous shocks there have still been international students traveling for their higher education. During SARS the impact of students from Hong Kong and mainland China not studying in the same numbers, was mitigated by Indian and South Asian students supporting international student flows. As of March 2020, international student mobility has almost totally ceased, and it is unclear to what extent and in what shape will it return.
The number of international students in higher education has increased more than two-fold in less than two decades (OECD).. Growth had already started to slow before the pandemic, and the impact on student mobility resulting from Covid-19 should not be understated. Not only must we acknowledge the obvious temporary impact on mobility which we are experiencing now, but the shrinking purchasing power of middle-income families due to the economic downturn ushered in by Covid-19. This will lead to a fundamental re-shaping and reduction of international student flows.
Newton’s laws of motion tell us that when an object is stationary it will only move if force is applied. It is a powerful reminder for policy makers that the UK should not expect international student mobility to recommence as if nothing has happened. In fact, fear, uncertainty and competition will all be forces that must be overcome if the UK’s international student recruitment is to regain momentum.
In a post-Covid world, where money is tight and jobs are scarce parents of potential international students will need hard evidence to prove the return on investment for sending their children half-way round the world to study. They will expect safety and hygiene as a minimum but look for facts to convince them that overseas study remains the best option. Numerous studies from UNICEF, QS and academic papers such as that in in International Journal of Chinese Education illustrate clearly that particularly in Asia employability is the most important consideration impacting student choice.
Fortunately, for UK higher education an answer already exists, and policy direction has been signalled by Government, before the crisis. In 2019 Gavin Williamson wrote to the Office for Students (OfS) saying:
International students should by supported into employment, in their home country or the UK. It will be critical that OfS makes public transparent data on the outcomes achieved by international students, including those studying wholly outside the UK as it does for domestic students.
The standard response from the Office for Students has been that it is too difficult and / or prohibitively expensive to collect robust international outcomes data.
We don’t currently have any plans to publish provider level data although we do include international students when we consider provider performance at registration as this uses absolute values i.e. it is not benchmarked.
While there is no doubt that securing robust international outcomes data is challenging it is far from impossible and certainly not too expensive in the context of a net pre-Covid return of £20.3 billion. Furthermore, the application of technology, the innovative use of artificial intelligence and the availability of public data sources bring new opportunities. We must move rapidly away from the dull, repetitive and failing methodology of graduate surveys currently being used and embrace the modern world.
Since 2016, Asia Careers Group (ACG) has collected international outcomes data from a variety of sources in the public domain from recruitment websites to agencies and professional and social networks. Cross referenced with average incomes computed to every job title based on geography, sector and years of experience this forms a robust data set of over 44,192+ data points of Asian graduates from 50 UK universities, which reflect the UK international student population. This dataset provides a snapshot of students’ employability at six and 18 months post-graduation and tracks career progression over time and is possible to compare to other countries, for example Australia.
The good news is that the picture is overwhelmingly positive of the UK graduates returning home to Asia following their studies:
- Within six months, 38 per cent are employed in graduate positions. Within 18 months, 69 per cent are employed in graduate positions;
- they command higher than average graduate starting salaries than their domestically educated peers. Their median starting salary less than three years post-graduation is £16,396 and mean average starting salary is £25,915;
- Of the 7 per cent working for multinationals 31 per cent are working for multinationals based out of Asia;
- 2.6 per cent of UK graduates returning to Asia are entrepreneurs.
The direction of travel is entirely consistent with the Government’s post-Brexit ambitions to become a leading trading partner with countries around the world. Graduate employment outcomes provide insights and trends into foreign businesses and the ways that UK universities can ensure their graduates respond to skills shortages. It is time for a data-led approach that allows policy to be based on genuine understanding of the way UK graduates are building and transforming Asian economies. Furthermore, if the UK were to promote strong employability messages backed up by robust data, while at the same time promoting the new graduate route, it could be on the road to recovery far quicker than the global competition, while simultaneously empowering international students to make the right choice of university, if they decide that career options are their priority on graduation.