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The lure of work rights for int’l students – Act 1: Policies

Dubbed “the bridge between education and immigration” by Centre for Global Higher Education’s Simon Marginson, post-study work rights are being used by some countries as a way to encourage the globally mobile student to put down roots in a new country.

The colourful and varied magnets of post-study opportunities are often cited as reasons for mobile study. Illustration: Jenny Findahl

Work rights are not just about visas – employability skills and an all-rounded cultural immersion come with the package

Universities New Zealand executive director puts in this way: “The availability of post-study work visas has a strong influence on whether a student will even consider New Zealand as a study destination.”

In Canada, the policy rationale behind the post-graduation work permit, which allows graduates to stay and work for up to three years, is very clear.

“[It is] to make Canada a more attractive destination for international students, by providing the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and potentially qualify to apply for permanent residence,” says Carl Beauchamp, communications advisor at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“Any policy change related to future work opportunities directly affects the preference level for the country”

The country smashing its 2022 goal to host 450,000 students in 2017 is a testament to the success of this policy.

But work rights are not just about visas – employability skills and an all-rounded cultural immersion come with the package, and for some students they are essential to fund their study abroad experience. The host country’s economy benefits, too.

In this two-part analysis, we’ll take a look at how changing work rights policies have shaped the fortune of host countries, how they have impacted on the student experience, and the difficult conversations that providers, students and policy makers sometimes need to have.

Mining motivations – data behind the decision

“We don’t have direct research evidence on [PSW] importance,” Marginson says. “But we have the weight of opinion of education agents, institutions and national organisations working in the industry.”

A Studyportals survey of 2,318 students showed that the ability to work after graduation is “very important” for three out of four students.

“Any policy change related to future work opportunities directly affects the preference level for the country,” Rahul Choudaha from StudyPortals tells The PIE Review.

He uses Germany as an example; the country surpassed its 2020 goal of hosting 350,000 students last year. One factor, beyond its high-quality low-fee universities, is an 18-month residence permit to look for employment, he says.

And an analysis of more than 40,000 student responses carried out by Intead and FPP EDU Media showed that work opportunities were rated as ‘highly influential’ by an average 85 per cent of students.

Work opportunities linked to specific types of degrees may steer students’ decisions. An extension of the US post-study work permit Optional Practical Training to three years for STEM graduates has led to a strong enrolment growth in STEM master’s degrees, especially from India.

Ben Waxman of US consultancy Intead says, “I know the STEM focus is highly popular in part because of the three-year work opportunity.” But this could also be because these degrees generally offer more direct employment opportunities, even back home.

Work rights allow students to develop employability skills. Photo: Sarah Pflug/Pixabay

Policy shifts over time

The importance of work rights policies in shaping the fortune of host countries is evident in the dramatic swings that changes in the regulations have caused.

In Australia, a tightening of regulations in 2010 aimed at clamping down on irregular practices and decoupling education outcomes from access to permanent residency status occurred. New rules making requirements for skilled migrant visas more stringent saw international student numbers plummet, particularly from vocational programs.

The industry recovered only after a new review in 2013 relaxed rules around obtaining student visas, and introduced new post-study work visas, together with revised quality assurance rules for institutions.

In New Zealand, international graduates benefit from a very generous provision, with a three-year open visa from bachelor’s level and above.

“I do worry that good students are going to our competitors where they can get that full range of employability skills”

But Whelan adds that minor tweaks to the skilled migrant category visa in April 2017, which included a slightly higher minimum salary, resulted in a 32 per cent decline in new student visa approvals from India.

“India is a migration market…so tweaks to visas will affect student numbers,” he says.

In the UK, when the government took the decision to end the Tier 1 (post-study work) route in 2012 – which had enabled students to seek employment for two years without sponsorship – the impact was immediate, with Indian numbers, in particular, dropping by 26 per cent by 2016/17.

Learning the lingo

One category of students can’t work at all while in the UK: non-EU students on a short course. This leaves the ELT industry vulnerable, English UK chief executive Sarah Cooper thinks, impacting not only student recruitment but making the industry less egalitarian.

“A decade ago, experiencing UK culture and learning English here was open to students with the drive to make the most of the opportunity,” says Cooper. “Now, it is largely restricted to those from family backgrounds who can afford to fund their children’s studies and living costs.”

A lack of work experience can also impact on the educational value of a language course, Cooper says. “I do worry that good students are going to our competitors where they can get that full range of employability skills,” she says.

In the UK’s case, it is Australia, New Zealand and Ireland that are making gains, with supportive policy in place.

“Work rights are about adding to the experience rather than funding it”

The availability of work rights for students varies across the ELT landscape, but it’s just as important to the student experience and recruitment as it is in higher education.

While in Ireland work rights are tied to a minimum course length, in Australia EFL students have the same working rights as other student visa holders.

The industry in New Zealand was warned by education consultants that work rights gave Australia a competitive advantage, English New Zealand executive director Kim Renner recalls. That’s how the association began advocating for work rights – which have then been introduced in 2014 for students enrolled in courses of at least 14 weeks.

Tying working rights to a minimum course length struck a good balance between enhancing the student experience and ensuring their primary purpose is studying and not working, Renner tells The PIE Review.

“Work rights are about adding to the experience rather than funding it,” she says. As a result of the policy shift, there has been sustainable growth in most markets, but in particular from Brazil and Colombia.

In the US, language students are allowed to work on-campus for 20 hours a week. But the allure of work rights can’t be used for student recruitment, English USA’s Cheryl Delk-Le Good says, as students need to demonstrate a commitment to full-time study.

In Malta, new regulations introduced work rights after the 13th week of stay, which will “definitely boost the interest of students,” FELTOM CEO James Perry says.

The ELT industry in South Africa has had a lot on its plate over the past three years, but EduSA chair Johannes Kraus says that the association “would love to lobby more” for the case of work rights. “I believe this has a huge impact,” Kraus continues. “If one can see what Ireland and Australia are doing…I am jealous!”

In Canada, Languages Canada is advocating for the reintroduction of work rights and CEO Gonzalo Peralta says the government is open to re-examining the policy.

“We have very strong arguments in terms of the economic, pedagogical and immigration aspects. Canada is a country built by immigrants and it’s for immigrants.”

“Who knows when or if immigration policy will add academic performance measures [to visa applications]?”

Making the case for long-term benefits

Germany is another country that has very liberal post-study work right policy. Back in 2015, the director of scholarships at German Academic Exchange (DAAD) explained that 30 per cent of international students staying back and paying taxes were enough to cover Germany’s expenditure on their education, which is next to free for all students.

The one-year search visa is a unique “selling point” for the Netherlands. Photo: Na4ev/Pixabay

In the Netherlands, the treasury doesn’t need any more convincing about the long-term benefit of employing international graduates, either.

“We have seen 25 per cent of international graduates are still here after five years, bringing €1.5bn into the Dutch treasury,” relates Nuffic’s policy officer Floor Van Donselaar. “That’s an interesting argument for policymakers.”

The country offers an ‘Orientation year’ during which students and researchers can look for a job and then seek sponsorship. “We know that the search year opportunity is a unique selling point,” Van Donselaar says.

The difficult conversation

In Australia and the UK, there had been some proven misuse of the student visa route to access the jobs market. In Australia, pre-2010, evidence was uncovered of vocational schools not providing a standard education, but a qualification that enabled “graduates” to stay and work.

It can mean that the sector needs to have that difficult conversation and address the fact that some students’ intentions may not be primarily academic.

“While work permits are attractive to international students, more faculty are expressing concerns that working is becoming the greater priority for some,” president of Canadian recruitment specialist M Square Media Donna Hooker tells The PIE.

Hooker explains that Canadian employers often ask for transcripts as part of the hiring process in order to assess student success, attitude and effort.

“Who knows when or if immigration policy will add academic performance measures [to visa applications]?”

This is the first part of a two-part long read on post-study rights, which first appeared in Issue 18 of The PIE Review. The final chapter, ‘Students’, will be published next week. You can read the latest news on post-study work here

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