Are current UK graduates properly prepared for the global workplace?

Businesses prefer graduates with international experience, writes Sir Ciarán Devane, and universities must take note

October 19, 2017
international travel

A global outlook is a vital attribute for future graduates. Our next generation of leaders will need to understand international cultures and engage with governments constructively both when there is a consensus and when there is a difference of views – and they will need to work with international partners to tackle those who have extreme views that infringe on basic human freedoms.

More widely, businesses prefer graduates with international experience, global awareness and cultural competence, not to mention the ability to speak more than one language. In 2013, the Association of Graduate Recruiters reported that 79 per cent of employers believed that “knowledge of the wider world is more important than classification of degree”. More recently in December 2016, the QS Global Employer Survey Report found that six out of 10 employers around the world give extra credit for an international student experience, and more than 80 per cent said that they actively sought graduates who had studied abroad.

It is not clear, however, that current UK graduates are properly prepared for the global workplace. According to recently published British Council research, 74 per cent of chief executives believe that we are in danger of being left behind by emerging economies unless young people learn to think globally.

The Australian government has recently published its own higher education internationalisation strategy. It is a bold, sensible and challenging statement that makes a series of clear targets for its international profile, including in higher education. Importantly, it demonstrates that Australia is serious about internationalisation.

As a country, we are seeking an increasing number of trade agreements with global markets and to extend business networks. To adjust to this, large, small and medium-sized businesses will all need increasingly international competences and knowledge.

Fortunately, there are numerous examples of good practice in UK universities. Coventry University has a Centre of Global Engagement; Liverpool John Moores University provides a Global Fund to support international projects; Nottingham Trent University has “Global Lounges” that offer virtual spaces for international debate; and the University of Salford provides a Global Graduate Scheme that connects students with firms offering international internships and experience.

However, this is only a small part of a much bigger picture. Internationalisation is not only about employability and business knowledge. It contributes to the stability and global influence of the UK.

The UK is in danger of looking at our interactions abroad as bringing only economic benefits. The Longitudinal Education Outcomes report focuses exclusively on graduates earning potential. We should be looking at “value for money” in more ways than just financial return. Outside the UK, many countries already recognise the importance of an internationally informed curriculum and internationally applied knowledge and skill base for its next generation of leaders and influencers. They highlight how a global cultural awareness shapes the way in which people engage with the world at large.

The Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago provides a fully inclusive international experience for all students. Its signage is multilingual; its social events are a stage for international artistic excellence; its library resources full of volumes in multiple languages. A trilingual exposure and experience for students and staff is normal, and all staff continually engage outside country borders. It is hardly unique in its commitment to internationalisation. Mexico’s University of Monterrey (UDEM) has an international internship target for all students. It is almost there, with more than 90 per cent of its current cohort having a work-related international accredited study programme delivered outside the country’s borders. It will probably reach its target next year – and it’s not a small university, it has about 10,000 students.

Our UK university mission statements make bold, visionary positions around the importance of a global perspective. Yet our measures of impact and success tend to be concentrated on the numbers of international students studying in the UK, and on their financial rather than cultural impact. This was reinforced when in August, the British government announced a new review into the importance of international students to the UK – focusing on the economic benefits to communities and local institutions.

The success of a higher education sector’s internationalisation activities should cover both benefits to the graduates as they study and the benefits to the communities those students engage with. For students themselves, an international learning experience is a clear and simple way of gaining familiarity with the alternative cultures and values of another country. However, UK students are famously reluctant to leave the UK. There are serious questions around why UK outward mobility is at such a low level compared with other countries. There is a tendency to assume that the cause of this is the lack of language competence, or the failure of universities to offer international experiences.

While speaking only one language undoubtedly presents problems in reducing confidence in students to study overseas, a number of other factors apply. Many UK students are the family breadwinner, or needed to provide practical support. They may face problems with accommodation or with rental arrangements that frequently require long-term commitments, preventing shorter term overseas engagement. Almost 80 per cent of students are also funding their university fees, at least in part, through part-time work near their UK university location.

Clearly we need a bold and imaginative mechanism for student mobility if we are to improve global skill development. It should meet the targeted needs of the UK, ranging from vocational skills to research, and managed through pre- and post-mobility into clear benefits for the countries participating.

Future mobility must allow for considerably more flexibility than the current semester- or year-based schemes, recognising part-time study, work-based learning and short-term training placements. We may then meet the two challenges of supporting multi-way mobility and meeting skills and innovation gaps. The ability to transfer academic knowledge to the world of work, leadership and innovation is what counts. Countries are now reconsidering the importance of apprenticeships, applied understanding and business relevance.

So what will make a truly global graduate, capable of international agility, global thinking and borderless innovation?

The Association of Global Recruiters listed the top four globally valued skills as the ability to work collaboratively, communication skills (speaking and listening), drive and resilience, and embracing multiple perspectives. Alongside such skills, employers value attitudes such as openness, curiosity, innovation, resilience and adaptability. These are all attributes that are key to coping in a different country, especially when engaging in another language. Developing such skills within a UK location may be satisfactory up to a point, but there is nothing like direct global experience for developing these skills.

The UK certainly does generate highly employable graduates. Across the UK higher education sector, there are strong and focused examples of internationalisation that support the generation of the new elite of global graduates. However, the challenges faced by rapid development and availability of internationally dextrous graduates from overseas universities, added to some negative perceptions of the UK, leaves little room for complacency.

More than ever, each country needs its new generations to take a full part in international activities, ranging from collaboration and engagement to policy influence. Culturally informed leadership is not only important for an individually country; it binds nations together in an understanding that leads to greater global stability, despite our differences.

Sir Ciarán Devane is chief executive, British Council. This essay has been extracted from the University Alliance publication Technical and Professional Excellence: Perspectives on Learning and Teaching.

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