In the aftermath of the pandemic, there has been a general disarray among international students whose academic experiences as well as their graduate employment prospects, work experience, and placement opportunities have been hugely impacted. Ambiguity and continuous evolution have been and continue to be common themes in the job market among international graduate students ever since.
Taking the pre-existing challenges and barriers that are unique to the international student experience into consideration, those who study abroad with the purpose of pursuing prosperous careers and meaningful networks tend to be struggling extra lately.
There are a number of surveys to be considered when bringing up the topic of international postgraduate students’ employability in the UK. The first of which is a 2020 survey conducted by the AGCAS Internationalisation Task Group and supported by member organisations of the International Student Employability Group (ISEG). The survey mainly aimed to build a clearer picture of the effectiveness of new post-study (work) visas, increase the general understanding of international graduates' expectations in the job market, and provide insights into the facilitators and barriers to international graduates' success in securing employment in the UK.
The participants of this survey were 345 international graduates from 52 universities across the country and of 71 different nationalities currently holding either a Graduate Route or Skilled Worker visa. The top fields of study of the participants were Business and Management, Engineering, and Computing. As for employment, two-thirds were employed on either a full-time or part-time basis, only three respondents reported as self-employed, and 72% were in graduate-level employment.
The results of the survey showed that more than half of the respondents reported that their expectations regarding post-study work visas are being met, with many of them praising the flexibility of the Graduate Route visa and how it provides the opportunity for long-term work in the UK. However, expectations were not met by 24% of the respondents, while 18% remained undecided on the matter.
Upon further thematic analysis of the responses from graduates whose expectations were not met, the most common reasons for that were found to be the employer’s poor knowledge of post-study work visas, the employer’s refusal to accept applications from international graduates despite their validity, and the high cost associated with the Graduate Route visa.
Survey respondents were also asked how many roles they had applied for since leaving university. 42% had applied for over 50 roles, 22% had applied for 25-50 roles, 21% had applied for 1-10 roles, and 16% had applied for 11-25 roles.
The second survey was conducted by Prospects in 2020 and included 1,202 final-year students. The survey reported “significant disruption” to students’ “professional development and career journeys”, with 70% indicating negative feelings towards job prospects. A later survey conducted in 2021 by Early Careers gathered responses from around 7,0000 UK-based students and graduates. Among this survey’s respondents, 50% felt “unprepared” for employment while almost 40% felt uncertain of their career plans following graduation.
According to a further survey that was also conducted in 2020, non-EU students residing in the UK, however, are less likely to express negative feelings towards their career prospects when asked about them. Just over two-fifths (41%) of non-EU students and grads in the UK expressed negative sentiments, while the same was indicated by 56% of UK students and 54% of EU students.
Manca Sustarsic and Jianhui Zhang published a study in The Journal of International Students in 2021 which found that in addition to increased levels of anxiety and stress among students, the pandemic also had a great impact on international graduate students’ future employment abroad.
This was further supported by the comment made by an international student who lost their summer internship, which in turn “changed the way they could be in touch and get to meet people in their field”. Another student made note of another important concern, “some companies and organisations try to hire local people first before internationals. I am more concerned about that.”
This raises multiple questions, notably how this will affect employability-minded students’ decision to study overseas in the future as well as those whose goal is returning home after graduation.
Postgraduate degrees have become increasingly common among international students in order to give themselves an edge or opt for a different career. This “masks a far greater issue as the majority of international students return home to start their early careers” according to the founder of the Asia Careers Group Consultancy, Louise Nicol.
The decision to stay abroad or seek employment back home is the most important phase that international students go through after graduation. Universities are failing international students by focusing “exclusively” on host country opportunities, with “little if any support for these students and no data on international graduate destinations to help guide them into successful careers,” says Nicol.
The majority of “western careers advice”, Nicol says, is for the most part, irrelevant for students who are job searching back home. The focus on post-study work opportunities by agents, recruiters and students themselves – especially with the graduate route in the UK and Canada’s policies driving immigration – is not necessarily helping matters.
“The first thing is to be clear regarding international students’ career aspirations – do they wish to stay in their country of study and take advantage of post-study work visas or return home?” She asks. “Their desired location will significantly impact the advice they are given.”
Likewise, students “need a realistic understanding of the prospects for migration” and how best to apply their experiences back home as they risk being away from the employability market too long and becoming “out of the loop”.
According to the founder and chairperson of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, Sanam Arora, there remains a “very significant” gap for international students, with many viewing their status as a drawback rather than an asset.
“Instead of employability being centred around education, I think it has to be the other way round now. Education has to be centred around employability,” Arora says.
Noeleen Hammond Jones, international careers manager at Lancaster University, tells The PIE that it has become “apparent to senior leaders within universities that there need to be amendments made to careers resources to achieve the employability outcomes that they promised to students, and that includes a dedicated international resource within a team”.
Under-funding and regular department cuts, however, continue to remain significant challenges for career services.
“Universities depend on rankings and graduate outcomes, but they don’t tend to put in the resources in the professional services side of things. It’s one of the first areas to get cut. It can be massively under-resourced,” Jones says.
Concerns that universities are “not preparing [students] with the industry-specific skills they will need in the contemporary job market” are being raised by The Handshake Careers Report upon looking at the careers sector of 2032. It also urges that students should receive more support, including more strategic relationships between student unions and career services.
The founder of Gradconsult, Rebecca Fielding, expresses the clarity of how the “collaboration and co-design between employers, career services, students and educators will be key to future success”.
Earlier in 2022, a report was released by UUP Students Futures, stating that if the UK is to remain a top destination for international students, more sector collaboration as well as opportunity intelligence and support through all stages of international students’ journeys are needed.
Mary Stuart, the commissioner of the Student Futures Commission and co-chair of the sub-group, said that despite international students making major contributions to UK teaching, this is “not always reflected in the provision of adequate numbers of training staff to provide careers and progression guidance tailored to the culture and contact of the students themselves”.
Despite an expectation that international students who come to the UK to study must adapt to our systems, “we barely acknowledge that culture shock works both ways,” wrote the associate professor in Tourism Marketing at the University of Plymouth Business School, Rong Huang, after the release of the report.
“[We] overlook the fact that many international students need to re-culturalise back into their own country after their studies,” she noted.
Some findings by the UPP research found that 50% of UK institutions delivered tailored career guidance and advice to students, although 56% have no specialist support staff to cater to international employability, and 44% do not provide them with tailored or specific enough guidance.
Research suggests that career advice should authentically reflect the chances for employability and the availability of opportunities overseas. As of now, around 84% of the services in the UK are around to help students develop their general understanding of the job market overseas while prioritising regions with high student demand, including locations exhibiting high alumni numbers and campus locations overseas.
“International students need to be engaged as early as possible, and provided with accurate, relevant information, especially for those planning to return home,” Jones says.
“It’s working with those students in those programs to make sure that they’re aware of ‘right OK, now is the time to start applying’, and also engaging with employers in those regions to get in front of the students and really share how the recruitment process might differ slightly,” she explains. “How the students engage with those processes, where they find those opportunities and to help the students to create competitive applications.”
Tobias Kliem, head of the campus at Arden University Berlin, notes that students begin thinking about their careers when approaching graduation. “[It’s] too late to develop the skills and local knowledge they need to be successful in their short-term career goals.” He explains that, additionally, differences in “employability customs” and best practice can raise “red flags” to other prospective employers internationally.
“To support this, we embed local employability skills into our classes – this helps us to keep careers on the agenda throughout their time with us and ensures that students have the knowledge they need to succeed at interview in their desired local market before they graduate from their course,” Kliem goes on.
In a show of sympathy for universities during the process of developing and maintaining relationships with international employers, Dilon describes it as “incredibly challenging” for two reasons.
“One is employers do not want a single university to recruit from, they want access to a large candidate database and all available talent and secondly, the university needs a large network of employers to really be of value to all their student populations both in terms of industries and locations,” he says. “It seems that it’s not what you know, but who you know that gains international students jobs after graduation. The lack of professional networking is a huge issue,” Dillon indicates.
“This is why we have just launched our new data-driven employment platform called JOB+. JOB+ uses employment data from over 1.5 million international alumni to connect international students and fresh graduates to a network of 350,000+ local, regional and global hiring managers and recruiters,” He highlights.
“Besides having international representatives on careers teams and empowering international student voices, how else can servicing an increasingly diverse cohort of international students be achieved? One answer could be through alumni networks,” Kliem suggests. “Staying in touch with alumni can provide enticing case studies for students and enable them to access advice from people who have been in a similar situation to them,” he says.
“For international students, many of whom may be looking to work globally, a network of alumni working in different countries can also give them insight into local customs and advice on the local job market.”
There has been no focused engagement between UK universities and international employers, which is not entirely the universities’ fault. This is according to data collected from Asia Careers Group over a five-year period following students returning to Asia after studying in the UK
“It is a big world out there and without data on which employers engage with it is challenging to know where to start,” Nicol advises. “Asia Careers Group is able to fill this gap, providing universities with their leading graduate destinations by the country for all major Asian markets, which allows universities to focus on employer engagement. With this data, universities can channel more students (than the present handful) into leading Asian employers overseas that recruit diverse roles within their organisations.”
Employers are learning how to become more adaptable and engaging with talents that are not just local, but the best in general, which is something that makes Jones optimistic about the future of this current issue.
Dillon adds that “The effects of Covid have brought about a “perfect storm” for many key student countries, with a return on investment from education by means of employment being a key differentiation for universities wishing to recruit international students,”
Kliem also commented on this saying, “Undoubtedly as we move forward with careers services for international students, personalised approaches will become increasingly important. The challenges international students face when applying for positions in different territories mean that a catch-all provision is impossible to implement successfully.”
“Only by offering this support from the very start of the student journey can we offer the very best outcomes and improve the student’s chances of graduate employment in their desired field.” He concludes.