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International graduate employability: homeward bound

Since the pandemic began, international students have experienced huge impacts on their academic experiences, which have extended to graduate employment prospects, work experience and placement opportunities. Ultimately, Covid-19 has forced students to navigate an ever-evolving climate that leaves future employment ambiguous.

Since the pandemic, international students have had to navigate an ever evolving employability climate. Photo: iStock

The UPP research found 56% of UK institutions have no specialist support staff to cater international employability

This is without the unique challenges and barriers already faced by international students, who study abroad with hopes of building prosperous careers, meaningful networking connections and brighter prospects.

A survey of 1,202 final year students by Prospects in 2020 reported “significant disruption” to students’ “professional development and career journeys”, with 70% indicating negative feelings towards job prospects. A later Early Careers Survey in 2021, which gathered responses from 7,000 UK-based students and graduates, reported nearly 50% felt “unprepared” for employment, with almost 40% uncertain of their career plans following graduation.

However, non-EU students residing in the UK are less likely to express negative feelings when asked about their career prospects, a further survey in 2020 found. 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.

Photo: Luminate prospects

But even positive-minded students have speculated on Covid-19’s detrimental impact on graduate employability. A 2021 study by Manca Sustarsic and Jianhui Zhang, published in The Journal of International Students, found that as well as increased stress and anxiety levels among students, the pandemic had impacted international graduate students’ future employment in the US.

According to one student, the loss of her summer internship “changed the way I could be in touch and get to meet people in my field”. Another commented that “some companies and organisations try to hire US people first before internationals. I am more concerned about that.”

If this is the case, will employability-minded students continue to choose to study overseas? And what about those students hoping to return home after graduating?

Many international students pursue postgraduate degrees to give themselves an edge or to change careers entirely, especially since Covid. This, Louise Nicol, founder of the Asia Careers Group Consultancy, tells The PIE, “masks a far greater issue as the majority of international students return home to start their early careers”.

Under-resourced and undervalued

One of the most important phases for international students following graduation is deciding whether to stay abroad, or seek employment back home. Nicol says 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”.

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?” Nicol 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”.

Sanam Arora, founder and chairperson at National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK, said at The PIE Live in March that there remains a “very significant” gap for international students, with many viewing their status as a drawback rather than 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,” she told delegates.

Noeleen Hammond Jones, international careers manager at Lancaster University, tells The PIE that it has become “apparent to senior leaders within universities that there needs 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”.

“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”

However, regular department cuts and national under-resourcing has proven a significant challenge for careers 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.

Shane Dillon, founder and CEO at Cturtle, tells The PIE that some universities are better at international student support than others, although students equally need to be preparing themselves for the reality of job markets, both in their host countries and back home.

“This is why it is important to access networks that can help in connecting students with internships and graduate and alumni job opportunities,” says Dillon.

The Handshake Careers Report, which looks at the careers sector of 2032, highlights concerns that universities are “not preparing [students] with the industry specific skills they will need in the contemporary job market”. Students require more integrated support, including more strategic relationships between student unions and careers services, it posits.

According to Rebecca Fielding, founder of Gradconsult, it is clear that “collaboration and co-design between employers, career services, students and educators will be key to future success”.

Linking education with employers

UUP Students Futures report released earlier in 2022 noted that if the UK is to remain a top destination, more “sector collaboration”, opportunity intelligence and support through all stages of international students’ journeys are needed.

Mary Stuart, commissioner of the Student Futures Commission and co-chair of the sub-group, indicated that although international students make 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”.

Rong Huang, an associate professor in Tourism Marketing at the University of Plymouth Business School, wrote for WonkHE after the release of the report, that, 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”.

“[We] overlook the fact that many international students need to re-culturalise back into their own country after their studies,” she noted.

The UPP research found some 50% of UK institutions delivered tailored careers guidance and advice to students, although 56% have no specialist support staff to cater international employability and 44% do not provide them with tailored or specific enough guidance.

Currently, 84% of services in the UK help students to develop their understanding of job markets overseas, with regions prioritised according to student demand, including locations exhibiting high alumni numbers and campus locations overseas. Careers advice needs to authentically reflect employability opportunities overseas, it suggested.

“We embed local employability skills into our classes”

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 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.” Additionally, differences in “employability customs” and best practice can raise “red flags” to other prospective employers internationally, he explains.

“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 tells The PIE.

Dillon, expressing sympathy for universities when developing and maintaining relationships with international employers, 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,” Dillon highlights.

The outlook post pandemic

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,” says Kliem.

“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.”

Data collected from Asia Careers Group over a five-year period following students returning to Asia after studying in the UK proposes that, although not the fault of universities entirely, there has been no focused engagement between international employers and UK universities.

“A catch-all provision is impossible to implement successfully”

“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 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.”

Jones remains optimistic, with employers having learned how they could be more adaptable, engaging with not just the best local talent, but the best overall talent.

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, Dillon adds.

Kliem continues, “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.”

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