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How international students can help bridge the UK’s skills gap 

  • 25 July 2022
  • By Meti Basiri

This blog was written by Meti Basiri, co-founder and CMO of ApplyBoard, an international student recruitment platform. ApplyBoard empowers students around the world to access the best education by simplifying the study abroad search, application and acceptance process to more than 1,500 institutions across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland. Founded in 2015 by brothers and former international students Martin, Meti and Massi Basiri, ApplyBoard has helped more than 300,000 students from more than 125 countries along their educational journeys. 

Job vacancies in the UK are at an all-time high. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of job vacancies in the second quarter of 2022 rose to 1.3 million – 500,000 more than before the pandemic. 

The UK is facing a clear and growing skills shortage, brought on by a combination of Brexit restrictions and COVID-19. In response, the Government relaxed eligibility criteria for the skilled worker visa across the healthcare, engineering, technology and education sectors. It’s a good start, but there is further opportunity to look outside the UK’s borders for a solution. Tens of thousands of international students are eager to start a rewarding career in the UK. 

As someone who has helped thousands of international students with their educational journeys – and a former international student myself – I know firsthand how much dedication, courage and resilience it takes to succeed in a new country. The drive, eagerness and passion that international students offer is what UK employers are looking for. By the nature of their experience, international students have already shown they know how to embrace change, problem-solve and step outside their comfort zone. 

Attracting talent to solve the skills shortage

The UK is an attractive market for international students. 2020/21 was a record-breaking year for international student enrolment, as the UK reached its goal of hosting 600,000 non-UK students by 2030, 10 years ahead of schedule.

Future indicators are also promising. In fact, we recently looked into Google search result trends for study abroad destinations in emerging markets around the world and discovered growing interest in studying in the UK. For example, the UK was the top-searched destination by Pakistani students in 2021/22, and saw significant growth within other top emerging Asian countries, including Bangladesh and Indonesia. In addition, in 2020/21, UK searches amongst Nigerian students grew 305 per cent compared to 2018/19, while increasing 50 per cent amongst Kenyan students and more than doubling amongst Egyptian students.

Retaining talent in an increasingly competitive landscape

Attracting students, then, isn’t a struggle for the UK. But there is a challenge when it comes to retention. The Graduate Route has presented a great foundation to enable international students to stay in the UK post-graduation for two years following course completion (or three years for PhD students). However, there is an opportunity to extend this further to appeal to more international students considering the UK for their studies. 

Let’s look at work permit programs in other popular study abroad destinations like Canada’s Post-Graduate Work Permit Program and the United States’ Optional Practical Training Program. The Optional Practical Training Program offers international STEM students the opportunity to work in the US for up to three years following their graduation. Canada’s Post-Graduate Work Permit can also be a maximum of three years, and the program has become a key factor attracting international students. Post-Graduate Work Permit approvals increased from just over 55,000 in 2016 to more than 130,000 in 2021, according to data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

While the Graduate Route’s two years is certainly a step in the right direction, this limited timeframe could be a barrier to recruitment from the prospective employer’s point of view, which three years would certainly help improve. Not only would this give the student more time to land a job, but it would also offer them additional working experience and more networking opportunities. 

Strengthening employability skills via workplace integrated learning

Beyond extending the Graduate Route, how can we set international talent up for successful post-graduate employment and ensure their skills translate to a career in industry?

Sandwich courses have really paved the way when it comes to building employability skills during education. However, not all courses offer this route. So, it’s important for universities to offer more workplace integrated learning opportunities, which will ultimately drive stronger connections with industry as students progress through their studies. 

Recent data from the Careers Research and Advisory Centre confirmed careers support and employability skills are major deciding factors for students choosing where to study. Yet only half believe their institution is adequately supporting international students on the careers front. The same research also found that international students struggle more when it comes to gaining work experience, with many not completing any at all during their studies. 

Increased innovation and communication between universities and employers could help. Employers and universities must ask themselves how they can work together more seamlessly to improve career pathways for international talent. The UK’s higher education sector can’t risk being reactive on this topic, especially in the current circumstances.

Levelling up and spreading productivity

It’s not just London. Manchester, Edinburgh, Coventry, Glasgow, Sheffield and Leeds all have high numbers of international enrollees, presenting a great opportunity that will only strengthen the UK Government’s Levelling Up strategy. While the Government is rolling out various initiatives to drive up productivity across the UK to create more job opportunities and give everyone the chance to prosper, we can’t ignore the talent shortages currently burdening many organisations who have the framework to flourish, but a shortage of access to certain skill sets to shine. 

Access to a diverse pool of talent across the whole of the UK and having the opportunity to build multi-cultural teams will only benefit businesses, drive innovation and ultimately boost profits.

Every international student brings a fresh perspective and a global lens that is invaluable to innovation. Diverse student populations will help build enriching experiences and global perspectives in the UK.

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