The quality of the United Kingdom’s higher education and research is recognised across the world. International students who choose to study here make an important contribution to the national economy. It also helps the country build global relationships and pursue national interests through soft power. Current indications are that this market is growing; recent OECD data suggests that by 2025 there will be no fewer than 8 million international students globally. With competition to attract such students increasing, especially from other Anglophone countries, the UK needs to be more proactive to maintain its world-leading position and remain competitive. Dr Huang shares some thoughts and insights on how this might be achieved.
The UK government’s International Education Strategy outlines two key ambitions to achieve by 2030: to increase education exports to £35 billion per year and to grow the numbers of international higher education students studying in the UK to 600,000 per year. Both objectives will only be realised if international students report having a rich and rewarding student experience here that kickstarts their careers post-graduation. Assuring the quality of teaching and assessment at UK institutions is one way to support this and coincides with my work at the QAA. Another area where further attention is required is in the employability of international students.
Understanding the landscape
A 2020 UKCISA policy position paper called for policy changes (and action) to enrich the international student experience across every stage of the student journey. The paper explored two key themes: the need to develop a better evidence base to demonstrate the value of international students and international education more broadly, and to invest in improvements to international student outcomes and employability.
At a policy level, there needs to be a greater understanding in the UK of international employment markets. The careers services at many institutions here have been established (and are managed) to help home students get employment in the UK. More needs to be done to ensure these services benefit all students. There is currently limited understanding in the UK in relation to what gaining employment in many other countries involves and the support offered to our international students to navigate those markets is extremely limited.
We need to establish what the current offer to international students is. Pockets of effective practice should be identified. Universities’ employability practices differ markedly. It would be useful to undertake a systematic review of different university practice and gain a full picture of what existing services are available for international students. Work to realign careers services to benefit international students equally should be part of a university’s internationalisation strategy. There are opportunities for cross sector working here.
Keep in training
At a tactical level, more needs to be done to train people working in careers services on the different job market dynamics in other countries. There should be a particular focus on BRIC countries and other emerging markets where there is robust demand for graduates, especially those with higher degrees gained in UK universities. Surprisingly, very few people have been trained to support students enter employment in these growth economies.
The training challenge is two-fold: there is a lack of training given to people working in careers advisory services to appreciate the dynamics of other job markets and there has also been a lack of financial and time investment (together with a lack of will) to develop and implement such training. In the current set up, careers advisers often look after wide portfolios of (potentially unrelated) degree disciplines. Opportunities for cross fertilisation are often limited. Many such advisers do not have the time, resources, knowledge or support to respond to the diverse profile of student cohorts in their patch and their respective employment needs. My experience is that international students are rarely engaged with as individuals and key questions such as: how can we support these students to develop their career in their home country, or how can we empower them to overcome the challenges they will meet post-graduation, are not asked.
A more systematic framework to support international students is required; employability should be embedded in the degree. For many international students, their (often considerable) investment in a UK education is the bedrock of their future career. Key drivers behind their decision to study abroad are often misunderstood; many have little interest in the extracurricular activities of UK student life. There is an appreciation (and expectation) that students who come to study here must adapt to our systems but it is a barely-acknowledged fact that the culture shock works both ways; many need to re-culturalise back into their own country after their studies.
The full picture
International students, who pay higher fees than home students, are getting short-changed on employability. The sector has been slow to respond to this. There has been no regulatory need to do so. Many international students who come to the UK for their Bachelors’ degree choose to complete another postgraduate qualification here. Very little information is available on what these students do with that postgraduate study once they leave the UK. Such data would be useful to both the government and the sector. Employability data would tell us how competitive students leaving UK institutions are at securing jobs abroad against students who studied elsewhere. This could inform the effectiveness of the UK’s international education strategy, demonstrating we compare to other countries in direct competition as destinations for international students. With the evolution of the student experience narrative, and the increasing focus on the student’s experience post university, I hope it is only a matter of time until we capture this information.
Understanding student diversity
With recent changes to the post study work visa regulations and the UK’s departure from the European Union, the profile of international students in the UK will inevitably change. We have tended to consider international students as one homogenous group. We know they are not, but policy has often been blind to this! Chinese students have different needs to Indian students whose requirements are different to those of Nigerian students. As someone who came to study in the UK from China, I have insights from my own experience as an international student, and as an educator who has been teaching many international students from different countries for last sixteen years.
Re-entering the homeland
Every country’s education system has its specifics; look at the diversity within the UK system! Somehow this gets forgotten when marketing to and engaging with international students. The default position seems based on some outdated belief that students need to come here to learn what they cannot at home. This ‘privilege’ has a limited shelf life. Look at the growth of the university sector in many Asian countries; Chinese students are changing what they study because they have more opportunities in their own countries. The competitive advantage of a UK education is eroding. It is part of the paradox of having international students: we believe they come here because our offer is superior, yet we are also heavily dependent on the income they bring.
We know that the needs and wants of home students are constantly changing. This applies equally to international students. There has been a collective failure to understand how international students’ needs and wants have evolved. I have worked closely with some generation Z Chinese students. They are more strong-willed and independent than previous generations. The sector needs to encourage more dialogue with international students, encourage their contribution to the debate and invite them to be more active co-creators in their own study experience. This can benefit institutions too; having a vibrant international student community strengthens an institution’s competitive position.
International students provide insights into their own countries. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and around 44% of the population is aged 14 or under. Its people are highly educated and some choose to study here. Educating and shaping these young, bright minds can be a window into ways to solve the pressing issues in Africa. Another example of soft power.
Little attention is given to how international students can enrich the study experience for their cohort including both home and international students. This is another missed opportunity! Look at the workplace today, especially multinational companies. It is becoming increasingly important to be able to work collaboratively with people from different cultures and backgrounds. The foundation for that ability can be learnt in our universities at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
More should be done to promote and encourage the positive elements of internationalisation; its ability to break down borders, facilitate new linkages as well as support the cross fertilisation and transfer of knowledge. International students bring insights particularly of benefit to Anglophone universities where familiarity with literature in other languages is often limited. Multilingual students who can access research and studies in languages other than English bring a knowledge and perspective that is not tapped into enough.
One of the opportunities arising from the pandemic has been the experience of teaching students remotely. Many of us have had to learn on the job and one major insight has been that for remote teaching to be successful, more detailed preparation is required. We have seen much innovation across the sector. The home and international student experience has evolved. More work is required to fully understand the ongoing impact of the pandemic (and also of Brexit as the narratives around Brexit and immigration have not helped). The UK needs respond so it maintains its competitive position.