Rich Rewards: The Benefits of Investing in Employability for International Students and University Recruitment
Many UK universities anticipate a significantly more challenging international recruitment environment in 2024-25 as government policies to deter immigration begin to kick in. This article argues that by focusing efforts on supporting international student employability, universities can offer better value for money, enhance the student experience and life chances, and improve university international recruitment competitiveness.
Revaluing the student experience in HE’s global recruitment offer
It is a common perception that international students in the UK are valued mainly for their financial contributions to universities and the economy, despite the documented educational benefits international students bring to UK HE and its students. Given higher international student fee levels and more price-sensitive student flows, questions continue to be asked(1) about the extent to which international students get value for money for their degree and whether UK universities are falling short when it comes to student experience, employability and graduate outcomes.
With UK universities seemingly losing ground(2) in this year’s international recruitment cycle, and amid increasingly negative Government immigration narrative and policy, there are calls for UK HE to refocus on educational purpose and the student experience, where value will speak for itself and have holistic benefits. As Arnold and Ilieva state,
“…if we ensure all students – international and home – are supported to reach their academic potential and have a good experience, then the individual and the system will thrive.”
However, there is strong evidence from UCAS to suggest post-graduation work opportunities are a major attraction for UK international applicants, and the UK’s introduction of the Graduate Route has demonstrably supported the diversification of university recruitment in South Asia. Skill development, to support students in their careers, is also particularly important for countries such as Nigeria. Crucially, it is increasingly recognised that university support for international student employability is an important factor in international offer-holder decision-making.
Post-COVID national strategy: increasing support for employability
Focusing on the student experience is a fundamental component of the Government’s revised International Education Strategy (2021) which recognises the post-COVID international recruitment challenges for the sector. It highlights the need for excellence in all stages of the student journey, stating: “This begins with their application to study in the UK and extends to graduation and beyond, including their prospects for employment.” Employability is also a key theme in the Study UK Campaign and a core dimension of its student-facing message. The UUKi 2021 report International Student Recruitment: Why aren’t we second? also proposes a range of actions by both the Government and institutions. It highlights the importance of ensuring the success of the Graduate Route and demonstrating the UK’s competitive advantage in its student offer, including graduate outcomes.
In support of Government strategy, the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) International Student Employability Group has been proactive in the development of a coherent UK-level alumni offer and international graduate employability strategy. This has built on the detailed recommendations for institutions, sector representative groups and government in the 2020 UUKi report Supporting International Graduate Employability: Making Good on the Promise. Principles and frameworks for developing an excellent student experience and employability have also been published through the student-led #Weareinternational campaign and the QAA’s 2023 document Supporting and Enhancing the Experience of International Students in the UK.
How well are universities supporting international student employability?
Wang and Zhang’s 2022 report Rise, Reboot and Reform, notes how international student expectations of universities are shifting in favour of the development of practical transferable skills for work-life, and away from solely academically grounded programmes. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the HEPI 2021 report Paying more for less? Careers and employability support for international students at UK universities found that 92% of the 1051 international students surveyed across 118 UK universities viewed employability skills as very important or important when considering which university to study at. A critical differentiator was whether employability skills development was embedded in courses. Three-quarters of students who said employability skills were part of their course were happy compared with just 43% of students whose courses lacked these skills. Additionally, four in ten international students gained no work experience during their time at university despite 71% planning to work in the UK after graduation.
In terms of universities’ careers support specifically, 82% of international students surveyed said it was either important or very important when choosing a university in the UK. However, only 52% of these students thought their university careers support was doing well by supporting the needs of international students, with key gaps relating to a lack of information about employability to make course choices at the pre-decision stage, a lack of information about work and placement opportunities during study, and a lack of information about the (then) new Graduate Route and graduate opportunities in their home countries.
Research from UUKi’s 2020 study of 43 institutions, focusing on careers and employability service approaches to international graduate employability, found that 87% of Higher Education careers professionals rated the demand for Careers and Employability services from international students as “very high” or “fairly high”. However, only 28% of services felt they were able to meet the demands at that time from international students and 44% provided no tailored support to international students. As resource constraints continue to dominate the sector, will universities be able to improve this situation?
Rich rewards: employability enhancement and international competitiveness
The connection between enhancing international student employability and strengthening the UK’s offer to international students has been made clear in the government’s international strategy and many sector reports discussed above. HEPI (2021) has noted that universities even doing as little as sending pre-recruitment career information which is most useful to their future international students “stand to have a useful competitive advantage at relatively little cost.”
Furthermore, other substantial practical steps can be taken by universities to enhance international student employability and support a positive narrative about the UK Higher Education payback. This includes pre-sessional support for international students, raising awareness of careers services, curricular and extra-curricular activities, support for work experience and graduate-level employment in the UK, support to enter overseas labour markets and international alumni postgraduate support. The additional costs of employability support for international students may be mitigated through, for example, overseas reputation building, global industry network development and recruitment benefits. From a third-party provider perspective, Pagoda Projects’ delivery of global internships (online and in person) at UK universities has shown the value of embedding work experience for both international student employability and institutional return on investment.
More importantly, perhaps, it is time for more universities to adopt a strategic approach to supporting international student employability, led and monitored by senior leadership as advocated by the UUKi in 2021. As we see a likely acceleration in the development of Trans-National Education and the application of B3 monitoring to collaborative provision overseas, the importance of universities’ investment in their international students’ employability can only serve to amplify the impact and reputation of UK HE globally and to the benefit of all.