Don’t forget that international students need careers support too

Just 2 per cent of international students find jobs through UK universities’ careers services – a big failure given their economic input, says Alexis Brown

Alexis Brown's avatar
Higher Education Policy Institute
15 Oct 2021
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International students needs careers advice too

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Navigating the world of employment – both during and after studies – can be daunting for students. But international students face even more difficulties when searching for work, as they often lack the long-standing networks enjoyed by domestic students, are far removed from their own support networks at home and must be wary of abstruse visa restrictions that even prospective employers may not understand.

What obligations do universities have towards these international students, who pay much higher fees than their UK counterparts and yet often face more obstacles to employment afterwards? New research released this week by the Higher Education Policy Institute, where I’m director of policy and advocacy, and Kaplan explores the perceptions and expectations surrounding career support for international students. It finds that while 82 per cent of international students say the careers support they expected to receive was either “important” or “very important” when choosing a university in the UK, only just over half (52 per cent) of these students think their university is doing well in supporting the needs of international students.

The needs of international students are diverse, although they have in common an immigration environment that has not always been overly welcoming to them − especially when it comes to finding work.

I first came to the UK as an international student in 2012, the same year that Theresa May’s “hostile environment” was introduced. I had to supplement my scholarship stipend with part-time employment, but finding work that abided by my Tier 4 visa restrictions was sometimes difficult. Like many international students, I was constantly afraid of accidentally transgressing the work restrictions attached to my visa, which had already made me ineligible for many part-time positions and summer internships.

After finishing my PhD, I further needed employer sponsorship to remain in the country where I’d now spent most of my adult life − but the majority of UK employers don’t have a sponsorship licence and are wary of the cost and difficulty of acquiring one. Lack of certainty and clarity around employability can create years of precarity for international students, who, despite having invested so much in their UK education, often remain unsure of what kind of jobs will be available to them in their chosen field afterwards.

While the 2021 reforms to the student visa system have made things somewhat easier for students going through their degrees now, many international students remain understandably keen for universities to do more to facilitate them finding employment both here and abroad after their degrees.

Making the right information available to students from the outset is crucial to this support. According to the research, students who feel their university gave them sufficient information on future career prospects in their field before their course began were about three times more likely to feel very confident about finding employment than those who say they were not given enough information (31 per cent compared to 9 per cent).

But how far should this support extend? Students seem to be more split on whether they believe careers support should be offered only for the UK context or also their home country. While it would be a tall order for careers services to familiarise themselves with the employment contexts of every country from which they take international students, more could certainly be done to tailor career support for international students to what will be legally possible for them to undertake in the UK. For example, Tier 4 student visas restrict the number of hours that students can work to 20 hours a week. Thus, internships and work placements designed with the 20-hour-per-week limit in mind would help ensure that international students can enjoy the same kinds of opportunities open to their UK counterparts. 

With the new graduate route visa opening up further demand for post-study opportunities – the report finds that 71 per cent of students want to stay for at least a while after finishing their studies − employers will also need more support from universities if they are to become more open to hiring international students. University immigration offices could collaborate with their institutional career services to help educate employers on a range of topics, such as how to obtain sponsorship licences, which would help demystify what can otherwise be an intimidating process.

The UK has every incentive to support international student employability – especially given the economic impact these students have on the country and the crucial role their fee income plays in propping up chronically underfunded university research. Yet only 2 per cent of international students found a job through their university’s careers services, according to a 2019 UUK study. Better resourced, tailored support for international students must be offered to help not only these students, but also the UK, to take advantage of the talents they have to offer.

Alexis Brown is director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi). Previously, she worked at the Russell Group and UCL, and holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Oxford. 


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