The Paying more for less? Employability support for international students at UK universities report centres on the careers support provided by UK institutions to their international cohorts and the employability skills in their courses.
Over 70% of international students intend to stay in the UK after graduating to find work, and students from outside the EU were more likely to want to find employment in the country than EU students (74% versus 62%).
They were also more concerned than EU students about earning enough money to support themselves; postgraduate students were generally more concerned than undergraduates about financial security.
Postgraduate students not only had a better grasp of visa restrictions, but are also more likely to want to stay in the UK.
In some cases, this is despite their wishes, as their sponsorship agreements “required them to return home” to find employment.
“The primary reason most students attend higher education is to secure a rewarding career afterwards… so the quality of the careers and employability support is critical in attracting more students,” said HEPI’s director, Nick Hillman said.
“Some international students feel they are paying more but getting less”
“Some international students feel they are paying more but getting less… Support is seemingly targeted more at home students.”
The Careers Research and Advisory Centre and polling company Cibyl were commissioned to conduct the research for the report, surveying 31 international student in total – a focus group of postgraduates, undergraduates and foundation pathway students.
The report also found that 39% of international students gained no work experience during their time at university. Of those who had gained experience, 23% had done paid experience unrelated to their degree, 19% had completed paid experience related to their degree, 16% had undertaken unpaid experience related to their degree and 3% had completed unpaid experience unrelated to their degree.
Another key finding was the overwhelming majority stating that careers support and embedded employability skills – 82% and 92% surveyed respectively – was important, or very important when they came to choosing their institution.
When surveying the understanding of the restrictions among international students, EU students were “considerably less likely” than students from outside the EU to say they have a “very good” understanding of the rules regarding the new graduate route.
“Students from beyond the EU are more likely to have a good understanding, with 33% of non-EU students saying they understand the rules ‘very well’ compared to 23% of EU students,” the report noted.
“If the UK is going to compete globally for international students, ensuring that they get the support they need to prepare for future careers, in the UK or their home country, would set the UK apart from other countries,” said Linda Cowan, managing director of Kaplan International Pathway.
Despite international students benefitting the UK by bringing in £28.8 billion, CRAC’s director of research and intelligence Robin Mellors-Bourne said that international students in the UK have “often had to overcome various steep obstacles”.
The experiences and opinions of international students’ careers services at their institutions are also seeing mixed results.
It also sees a “drop” in positive opinions as international students’ progress through their university education. For many, support hasn’t met their expectations, with a 10% fall in confidence from first-year to final year students.
Despite this data, as reported in Universities UK International’s International Graduate Outcomes report in 2019, only 2% of recent international graduates from UK universities found their employment through their institution’s careers advisory service.
“[The] report recognises international students’ contribution to our campuses, society and economy but also shows they need more help in mapping out their careers and support in developing employability skills,” said managing director of UCAS International Aaron Powell.
Writing for The PIE News, pro-vice-chancellor (Careers and Enterprise) at University of East London Paul Marshall said, “There is an institutional commitment to provide support before, during and post-studies to international students, ensuring they have access to aspirational opportunities in the UK and abroad”.
When it came to employability skills, a majority of the focus group – 58% – have them embedded within their academic course, but science-based degrees tended to have more employability skills embedded in the courses that humanities courses.
“You would not get that sort of opportunity elsewhere, not outside the UK”
Undergraduates in particular were impressed by how the skills were embedded. One focus group participant suggested that their course leaders were consistently pushing the message that students “need to be employable”.
Job interview techniques, workshops and masterclasses all aimed at developing specific skills for life after university were mentioned by participants – one said they spent a week at the Crown Prosecution Service.
“You would not get that sort of opportunity elsewhere, not outside the UK,” the participant added.
A key part of employability skills is work experience, which seemed to be one pitfall of the current system.
Focus group participants who had tried to find work experience reported having “real difficulty” obtaining a placement, blaming high competition.
One participant said they’d had no success after “six months of trying”, and another said the high competition has been made worse by Covid-19.
The problem is exacerbated by visa restrictions, with visas only permitting work for up to 20 hours per week, which proves impractical for most students finding internships.
Postgraduates are even less likely to have gained work experience, with one participant citing the “compressed” course setup.
“With high fees they pay, students are right to expect effective and comprehensive employability skills…this is all important factor when it is a key factor in the decision they make about where to study,” Cowan added.