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Employability and international students: two sabbatical officers reflect

  • 18 October 2021
  • By Nana Fredua Agyeman and Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng

This blog was kindly contributed by Nana Fredua Agyeman and Kwame Asamoah Kwarteng, international students and former sabbatical officers at the University of Manchester Students’ Union. Follow them on Twitter @nanafreduaagyem, @asamoahpeters and @ManchesterSU.

The timing of the HEPI Report: ‘Paying more for less?’ could not be better considering how much the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted jobs across the world. One of the returns on a good education aggressively advertised on websites and other platforms by UK universities is the high probability of graduates being employed after graduation. However, considering that over 400,000 international students contribute on average £40 million to the UK economy per parliamentary constituency and £390 per member of the resident population, stakeholders including government agencies and universities have simply not done enough to ask how international students’ employability needs could be better met.

The HEPI report reveals quite strongly that international students know what they want but are not fully aware of what they are paying for or what to expect. When choosing a university in the UK,  82% of international students say career support was either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ while 92% say employability skills was an important part of their decision. However, when asked about their expectations on employability support, the report states that many focus group participants were unaware that they were entitled to such support. This is further backed by the evidence that only 45% of international students feel they were given sufficient information on the type of support they would receive in looking for employment before coming to the UK, while 26% say they were not and 21% were unsure.

If some UK universities are understating the careers and employability support for international students, how then can these students take advantage and more importantly, who is going to hold these universities accountable for not offering a service for which money has been paid? 

Another critical issue the report addresses is the barriers faced by international students when seeking work experience. International students, especially those who are from outside of Europe, face the deep-seated social problems of intentional and subtle discrimination. This may manifest as name and or country discrimination as employers sift through applications to choose suitable candidates. This behaviour may be motivated by prejudice, stereotypes or racism. This adds on to international students’ unsatisfactory employment experience in the UK. 

There was no surprise in noting that 47% of international students from beyond the EU felt more strongly that their careers service should be able to offer tailored support, compared to 25% of EU students. Despite the hurdles presented by Brexit, the business environment in the UK has more similarities with European countries than other regions such as Africa and Asia, so it is expected that EU students would be less likely to ask for tailored careers support. The more thought-provoking results were the differences of opinion between undergraduate and postgraduate students, where 32% of undergraduate students expected such tailored advice from their careers service compared to 48% of postgraduate students. The reason for this could be associated with the duration of study for both groups of students.

Undergraduates spend a minimum of three years in the UK and thus, become easily acquainted with the system by their second or third year. This offers them an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and gives them a higher probability of securing a job in the UK. Again, even though a cohort of undergraduates and postgraduates may begin studies in the same academic year, undergraduates enjoy a significant advantage of benefitting from policies introduced by the UK government in later years, for example, the Graduate Route Visa. Postgraduates spend only a year on their course and it is important that they return home with some form of competitive advantage, which is why many of them would prefer to have tailored career advice.  

Every vice-chancellor in the UK is quick to acknowledge the importance of international students in their student body portfolio given the significant financial benefits. However, the narrative that international students are only ‘cash cows’ still persists and it would be helpful to see universities actively address that not just with talk but action. There is some level of complacency amongst higher education institutions and the government that the UK will perpetually remain a popular spot for international students. If there is any lesson to be taken from this global pandemic, it is that no condition is ever permanent.

However, new policies like the Graduate Route Visa create a window of opportunity for career service in universities to provide support for international students which goes beyond CV checks and mock interviews. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of skills gap amongst Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) who are responsible for over 61% of employment in the UK. The assumption that SMEs are already aware that they can hire international students without bearing any extra costs and barriers should be challenged. For some businesses, there is the perception that hiring international students is synonymous with legal barriers and driving up operational costs with no financial returns.

Universities and government agencies now have the chance to focus on creating awareness with SMEs on the advantages of the Graduate Route Visa which offers the chance to employ the best and brightest international students for two to three years to support their business growth. Furthermore, SMEs should be educated on the process of gaining a sponsor license to fully employ international students after the Graduate Route Visa has expired. This will serve as a motivation for employers who invest a lot in training their international student employees and seek to retain the talent. Gradually, these steps could be effective in making more employers receptive to the idea of employing international students.

The private sector has an opportunity to emulate or learn from the successes of the blind recruitment strategy by the civil service that puts everyone on an even playing field and focus more on skills and experience rather than individual characteristics such as ‘name, immigration status, the university one attended and the previous company you have worked for’, among others. 

Already we are beginning to see a decline in interest in UK colleges amongst Asian students and their parents. It is only a matter of time before this effect trickles down into the higher education sector. China is on the rise and has overtaken both the UK and US as the top destination for anglophone African students. The higher education sector is becoming more competitive and international students are gradually realizing that they can enjoy similar benefits offered by the UK by studying either at home or abroad in other European countries such as Germany or the Netherlands, for example, at relatively lower costs.

This HEPI report will hopefully be a trigger for universities and education policy makers to further explore how best international students can be supported to either secure jobs in the UK or return home with a significant competitive advantage.

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