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International students need more relevant careers support if UK is to remain a destination of choice

  • 14 October 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Kaplan are publishing new research on the expectations and experiences of international students in relation to careers support and employability.

Paying more for less? Employability support for international students at UK universities (HEPI Report 143) includes specially commissioned new research from the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) and the polling company Cibyl that explores this important but little studied aspect of higher education.

Key findings

  • Careers support is a big consideration when choosing where to study: An overwhelming majority of international students say the careers support (82%) and employability skills (92%) they thought they would receive were ‘important’ or ‘very important’ when choosing their university. Yet only around half (52%) think their institution is doing well at satisfying the careers support needs of international students.
  • Students on courses with embedded employability skills are more satisfied: Three-quarters (75%) of students who say employability skills are embedded in their course are happy with their course and university, compared to just 43% for those who say employability skills are not part of their course. Students who feel their courses have not covered employability skills are twice as likely to say that, in hindsight, they would pick a different institution to do the same course (18% versus 8%) and three times as likely to say they would go to a different institution to do a different course (12% versus 4%).
  • Expectations of careers support post-graduation vary: Students are split on whether their university careers service should provide tailored support about careers in their home country – 42% of students say it should, another 42% say they do not expect this.
  • International students struggle to find access to work experience opportunities in the UK: Four-in-ten (39%) international students have done no work experience during their time at university. Sometimes, this is not out of choice. Focus group participants complained, ‘I’ve been applying for work experience but have had no success after six months of trying’, ‘Competition has been really high trying to get placements, [and] COVID has made it worse’ and ‘I think UK companies are timid in the face of a hostile immigration system’. The majority (71%) of international students say they plan to stay in the UK to work after graduation, at least for a while, and among those who plan to stay, over three quarters (77%) are concerned about whether they will earn enough to support themselves.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

The quality of UK higher education is unquestionably something the rest of the world respects about our country. Demand among international students held up even in the depth of the first global pandemic for a century. But we cannot take such strong demand for granted because Brexit has meant a halving in the number of EU students arriving here to study and because other countries also want to recruit more international students, meaning fierce competition.

The primary reason most students attend higher education is to secure a rewarding career afterwards. So the quality of the careers and employability support is critical in attracting more students. Yet some international students feel they are paying more but getting less because some support is seemingly targeted more at home students.

The answer to this conundrum is to reconsider the support provided before, during and after study. There needs be ensure good pre-arrival information, equal access to work experience opportunities and easy access to support after graduation. Effective support is not cheap but it is clearly an appropriate use of the higher fees that international students pay.

Linda Cowan, Managing Director of Kaplan International Pathways, said:

Our report provides new evidence for the importance of employability skills to international students as part of the UK higher education offer. With the high fees they pay, students are right to expect effective and comprehensive employability skills and careers support, and this is all the more important when it is a key factor in the decisions they make about where to study.

There is good news – a majority of students surveyed found that employability skills were embedded in their academic course and this was a strong predictor for how happy they were with their course and university.

If the UK is going to compete globally for international students, ensuring that they get the support they need to prepare for future careers, in the UK or their home country, would set the UK apart from other countries. Increased support for international students will also benefit UK students who are looking to develop their careers globally.’

In support of today’s report, Aaron Powell, Managing Director of UCAS International, said:  

Today’s report recognises international students’ contribution to our campuses, society and economy but also shows they need more help in mapping out their careers and support in developing employability skills. Each year, UCAS supports over 100,000 international students making undergraduate applications from 200 countries and territories around the world each year.

HEPI and Kaplan will jointly host a (free) webinar on the results on 14 October 2021 – see

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI and Kaplan worked with CRAC and Cibyl to collect a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. CRAC conducted three focus groups with international students at pathway, undergraduate and postgraduate levels in June 2021. The issues raised then informed the compilation of the online survey by Cibyl taken by 1,051 international students from 118 universities in August 2021.
  2. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a registered charity.
  3. Kaplan International Pathways supports the higher education sector worldwide in achieving its internationalisation and diversity ambitions. It does this through on – and off-campus pathway programmes for international students and innovative solutions such as Transnational Education, online delivery, targeted direct student recruitment, and student residences.

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