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Train UK employers ahead of graduate route rollout, say stakeholders

UK higher education will need to double down on efforts to train employers in the country on the post-study work option ahead of its imminent reintroduction this summer, stakeholders have urged.

Universities need to work with employers to ensure international graduates have access to high-skilled work opportunities. Photo: Unsplash

Institutions should also be "really clear about which courses might lead to job opportunities"

Universities must not overpromise and underdeliver on the promise of the scheme’s opportunities to students, educators said, as they mulled how best to make the pathway a success.

“The biggest thing at the forefront of my mind is how do we not overpromise and underdeliver?”

Speaking at the British Council’s International Education Virtual Festival, director – UK & Europe at Edified Oliver Fortescue – who returned to the UK in 2019 after almost a decade in Australia – advised UK institution’s to temper student expectations, and educate employers on the scheme.

“There are still sometimes expectations that [students] are going to get to an executive level position after finishing a master’s program,” he explained, adding that a portfolio of previous work experience will help graduates find the best opportunities.

UK needs to “from the off” train employers on what is possible on the scheme, as there is a risk employers “just assume that it’s too complicated”.

“If they actually understood the rules better, they could get somebody with a really unique skill set, really keen to prove themselves in their first job after graduation,” he told delegates at the event.

Career teams at UK institutions must explain how the visas work “so that employers aren’t afraid to choose the person who doesn’t have the visa they know about”, Fortescue continued.

“They are excellent graduates,” agreed Jennifer Wilkinson, director of Student Recruitment & Business Development – London Metropolitan University. “[Employers] have this great pool of graduates that they can draw on.

“The biggest thing at the forefront of my mind certainly at the moment is how do we not overpromise and underdeliver?” Wilkinson continued.

Consistent sector-wide messaging will help on this issue by marketing the scheme honestly, she urged.

“There is obviously that need now to take a step further to embed our employability programs more into our specific courses and also to work with employers to ensure that they understand what the graduate route is, to understand who our students are and what the realities of this visa mean.”

Universities UK International worked with AGCAS, UKCISA and Coventry University to lay an employability roadmap early in 2020.

“You can’t expect that students will automatically connect into the right places in the job market”

“As recommended by the report, UKCISA has now established a strategic coordination group which, among other objectives, is considering how best to ensure employers are aware of the graduate route when introduced,” Vivienne Stern UUKi Director in a statement to The PIE News.

“This will be key to ensuring the success.”

In a statement to The PIE, The Confederation of British Industry – a non-profit that represents 190,000 businesses in the UK – agreed that the “new post-study work visa will make it easier for companies to benefit from the skills, ideas, and talents of recent graduates”.

In November 2020, it also produced a business guide to navigating the new points-based immigration system. However the document only briefly mentions the graduate route and indicates employers are also grappling with understanding wider implications of UK’s new points-based immigration system.

As a result of the pandemic, it is not clear what sort of a job market the first cohort of graduates on the route will be facing in the summer.

“Lots of universities already support students and young graduates to set up their own businesses,” Maddalaine Ansell, director – Education at the British Council, said, adding that institutions should also be “really clear about which courses might lead to job opportunities”.

“If we know that right now there aren’t jobs for people in hospitality, but there might be jobs in the digital economy, then make sure students understand that, perhaps even offer extra-curricular opportunities to build up their skills in that area.”

The policy was widely regarded as helping the UK in its international student recruitment targets, speakers at the British Council noted.

Head of Insights and Consultancy at the British Council, Matt Durnin, added study destinations have set up post-study work pathways as “a ‘build it and they will come’ proposition”.

“You can’t expect that students will automatically connect into the right places in the job market. So it takes a tremendous amount of effort.”

In Australia, an International Education Association Australia report from 2017 found that 17% of PSW visa holders working in low skilled jobs such as retail, wholesale and hospitality.

Before the UK graduate route was withdrawn in 2012 there were concerns around a graduate work/ skill mismatch, Edified’s Fortescue noted.

“Perhaps ‘flipping burgers’ is a bit flippant… [but in Australia] hospitality industries are still the biggest employer of graduates,” Fortescue said, and getting skillsets to match jobs is “an important factor”.

“The question is what are they telling future students about their experience? And in the long run, is that going to impact on recruitment,” he said.

“Hospitality industries are still the biggest employer of graduates”

From a student perspective, East Asian UK Alumni from Thailand, speaking at the event from Italy, Noramon Mekavuthikul, highlighted another point – students must present international qualities as assets.
“Actually hiring an international employee is an asset to [businesses with international clients],” she said, urging universities to empower international students towards that mentality.

“When [graduates] do present themselves, they shouldn’t present themselves just as equal to domestic, but different, with a different skill set that they can bring to the employers in the future.”

• The PIE is hosting a webinar on graduate employability with University of Portsmouth on 29 January. Register here.

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