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Louise Nicol, Founder, Asia Careers Group SDN BHD

Louise Nicol is the founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, which seeks to improve the employability of internationally educated graduates returning to Asia. The PIE News spoke to her graduate employability outcomes and the impact of aggregators.


Photo: Louise Nicol

"Even with the Graduate Route, I would predict that over 80% of international students will return home"

The PIE: What is your background and how did you get involved in education? 

Louise Nicol: I graduated from the University of Exeter in economics, geography and then I did the Japanese Exchange Teaching Scheme. So I’m a product of global mobility. JET was an amazing experience, meeting amazing people, a phenomenal cultural and learning experience, which is why I’m passionate about the recently introduced Turing scheme.

After the JET program I came back to the UK and went into education business development for Hobsons. I did everything from selling events to websites and then launched their education research business looking at the strengths of university brands. Then headhunted to work for i-graduate leading on their business development in the UK, US and Europe plus New Zealand. Then through my husband’s job we moved to Asia, Malaysia, then India and back to Malaysia.

I could see from my background in higher education and education research that a part of the question wasn’t being answered, the whole employability piece. So around four years ago, I launched Asia Careers Group SDN BHD and we have been collecting robust representative outcomes data on international graduates that return home following their studies in the UK and Australia ever since.

The PIE: Tell me a bit more about your work around graduate employability outcomes. 

LN: HESA does a huge graduate outcomes exercise every year, but they don’t actually let universities know their top graduate destinations. They don’t say, you have X number of students that go and work for PWC, X number who go to Shell and so on. What we’re very focussed on is not only telling universities how quickly their graduates get a job and what their average income is, but also their top graduate destinations by country.

The world’s a big place and if you’re in employer engagement internationally and you have to help your students get jobs in China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. where do you start if you don’t have that data?

“If you look at Malaysia, of the top 10 employers, only one is a multinational, Google – all the rest are Malaysian companies”

We see in Asia far more students moving away from the traditional MNCs towards tech companies, not just the traditional Western MNCs, as the world pivots towards Asia graduates are moving towards Asian centric businesses. So if you look at Malaysia, for example, of the top 10 employers, only one is a multinational, Google – all the rest are Malaysian companies.

Our data shows the same trends in China, less so in India and Singapore. Our prediction is that over time India will become far more India centric. The world is pivoting eastward. The Asian century means that increasingly UK graduates will work for Tencent, ICBC, Huawei etc. So we really must keep an eye on labour markets and developments in Asia.

There’s a massive buzz about the UK graduate route and I’m delighted about its reinstatement. But we mustn’t forget that without the graduate route, 96% of students went home. Even with the graduate route, I would predict that over 80% of international students will return home. So what are we doing for those graduates that come to the UK, get their degrees and then return to their home country?

The PIE: What are universities are doing for UK graduates returning to Asia?

LN: I would say there are pockets of best practise and there’s been quite a lot of work done by Esther de Perlaky at Warwick on China HESA DLHE data. There are some China-centric careers fairs that are done by the GW4. Birmingham and Warwick recently did a more Asia-centric careers fair, which was really good to see.

When I say pockets, I really do mean pockets. What tends to happen, and the British Council has fallen into this trap, is that we just re-badge UK career’s content and say, “oh, well, that will be OK for international students. Let’s teach them how to do a CV and how to do interviews.”

If you’re Chinese, you’re never going to have to write a CV and you’re never going to have to do an interview because it’s all done on online application and predominantly through algorithms. You’re never going to see a person until your application is pretty much accepted. We see in China, UK graduate employability is much lower than the rest of Asia, particularly for undergraduate students, because if you’ve got ten thousand applicants for a single position, you take the highest level of education. So you’re only looking at postgraduate students.

The PIE: What are some of the differences between the UK and Asian countries when it comes to applying for graduate jobs? 

LN: It’s really important that we start to tailor the advice we give to international students by country, by what their labour markets are doing, by how their graduate recruiters recruit. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have the milk round. There are some equivalents for example, Malaysia has something which is similar. But if you’re looking at Indonesia, for example, there’s no such thing. If you’re a student returning to somewhere in ASEAN, other than Malaysia or Singapore, you’re talking speculative applications, finding the job or applying for jobs, that don’t necessarily exist. So we frame our careers advice in our domestic context, which is absolutely natural to do. But it’s very different if you’re an Asian student returning home.

The PIE: In terms of student recruitment, what are your thoughts on aggregators? 

LN: It is very difficult not to be wowed by the odd unicorn! What Meti and his brothers have done with ApplyBoard is amazing. I end up having lots of conversations with aggregators and not just aggregators, I think that pathways, aggregators, outsource services are all now playing a bigger role in higher education. My fear is that universities are not necessarily going into this with their eyes wide open to some of the threats and the risks posed by putting all one’s eggs in one basket.

“My fear is that universities are not necessarily going into this with their eyes wide open to some of the threats”

Australia at some point is going to come back into international markets fighting. Who’s to say that they’re not going to pay agents more commission and the aggregators are going to think, let’s point more people towards Australia, because obviously that’s in our best interests. Plus the course data that agents have on the back of aggregators is not great. If you actually do course searches, you’re not necessarily getting a comprehensive picture of the whole sector.

It is incredibly difficult to do. Even searching for business courses on StudyPortals, the first, however many courses that come up, are from a single UK university. That’s not necessarily providing an unbiased look at the sector.

The PIE has written very eloquently about the conflicts of interest between publishers of rankings and higher education. The same is true of aggregators. The more money you pay, the higher up the list you get. Unless you’re on page one, is a student really going to scroll to page seven?

I agree that there are issues in terms of environmental sustainability flying around the world, but the personal touch of someone from an institution speaking to a student still pays huge dividends. Yes, online is great. But a university cultivating a relationship with an agency is still worthwhile. Relationships and storytelling matters.

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