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International Employability: When policy halts progress

  • 26 April 2022
  • By Louise Nicol

HEPI’s hybrid Policy Briefing Day is on 27 April 2022 and institutions that support HEPI are entitled to a free place.

This blog was written by Louise Nicol, Founder of Asia Careers Group.

The lifting of pandemic restrictions has finally allowed colleagues to gather after two long years of isolation working from our back bedrooms. First at The PIE Live, where the buzz around international employability was as palpable as the focus on student recruitment, and then at the House of Commons for the launch of UPP’s Student Futures Manifesto.

Whether it was panels or roundtables with international students and UKCISA’s International Student Ambassadors, The PIE event confirmed earlier research published by HEPI and Kaplan showing international students are driven in their decision to study overseas by the international employability agenda.

Asia Careers Group provided insight on graduate employability for students returning to Asia following studies overseas to the UPP Foundation’s International Student sub-committee. The official unveiling of the report and launch of the Student Futures Manifesto in Parliament in March saw more than 20 UK higher education institutions immediately commit to the initiative. Regrettably, however, no Russell Group institution was in the initial list, which signals the scale of the challenge. Many UK universities do not yet pay enough attention to their international students’ employment prospects.

It is arguable that the UK’s boost in international enrolments has deluded the sector into thinking it does not need to worry about the acceleration of competition from other study destinations or the manifest student demand for better graduate outcomes. And if there are one million graduate vacancies, will UK employers open them to international students in the same way they do for their domestic peers?

It is possible to be sympathetic when individual higher education institutions are not first out the blocks when it comes to international employability. Despite their obligation to thousands of students graduating annually, they have had their hands full during the pandemic with ground-breaking medical research, delivering online learning and navigating lockdowns.

But new problems have arisen. One example is the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s collection of data on graduate outcomes. With the notable exception of an important study by the University of Warwick looking at Chinese graduates, too little has been done with the data from international students. Now, despite international students highlighting the importance of employability in numerous studies, we will no longer actively call non-EU students to submit their experiences.  

According to Noleen Hammond Jones, International Career Manager at Lancaster University, ‘The removal of international calling is a big concern for us on the AGCAS [Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services] Internationalisation Task Group’. She bemoaned the lack of consultation on the decision, which was made despite lobbying by UUK and UKCISA to reconsider.

In truth, there are far better ways of capturing Graduate Outcomes data, such as employing new data collection technology. For every year that passes when we do not consider international students’ futures, the UK’s valuable education brand overseas is diminished. Well qualified students unable to find work back home happily broadcast this fact on social media and among their friends and wider social networks.  

All the signs are that Australia is coming back on a mission to re-establish its position as a highly desirable international student destination. Canada continues to boom and the sleeping giant of the United States is opening its doors to the international community, partly out of necessity due to the demographic cliff it finds itself confronting with lower numbers of domestic school leavers. The UK has benefited greatly from the reintroduction of post-study work visas and a year of open borders before the rest of the market but that will not be enough over the longer term.

We should not let another cohort of international students graduate into a hostile global labour market with little if any tangible support, particularly for those returning home. In Asia graduate unemployment is rising: China’s youth unemployment stood at 16.2 per cent as of 2021; in 2020, the World Bank reported that unemployment with advanced education in India stood at 15.7 per cent; and Malaysia is not dissimilar at 14.5 per cent. Action on international student employability – both in country and on returning home – and promoting the UK education advantage based on hard data is the best response.

Register here for HEPI’s Policy Briefing Day.

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