More international students dissatisfied with university outcomes

Hesa data may not tell full story, but UK universities should be concerned that students do not feel they are utilising what they learned, experts say

June 5, 2023
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UK universities should be closely monitoring the experiences of international students after a major survey found an uptick in the number of them expressing dissatisfaction with their courses, sector experts have warned.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) Graduate Outcomes survey – published last week – found that the majority of graduates from UK universities view their outcomes positively, but there were slight changes in graduate perceptions compared with the last iteration of the study.

Differences were sharper among international students, particularly those from outside the European Union, although Hesa cautioned that the response rate for this group halved in the past year following the decision to survey them online only.

Of non-EU graduates from 2020-21, 70 per cent said they were utilising what they had learned – down from 76 per cent in 2019-20.

And the proportion who said their current activity fitted with future plans dropped from 79 per cent to 72 per cent over this time.

Ruth Arnold, executive director of external affairs at Study Group and co-founder of the #WeAreInternational campaign, said it was important to be careful when interpreting the data.

“The Covid period was hard for many students. But it was especially tough for international students, far away from family, concerned for their safety and often finding it extremely difficult to socialise or work in ways they had expected,” she said.

“The employment opportunities some hoped to take up as graduates were impacted as their own countries’ economies recovered more slowly after the pandemic; so there was a delay in being able to apply their education in their work – one measure included in this data.”

Other data, such as the National Student Survey, shows that international students are more satisfied with their education than local students, she added.

But Ms Arnold said the sector had to pay close attention to the needs of international students to understand what would help to make their experience better in the future.

The 2020-21 survey was the fourth to poll graduates 15 months after they had finished their studies.

Overall, the results showed that 69 per cent of higher education graduates think they are utilising what they learned during their studies in their current activity – down from 71 per cent the year before.

Seventy-seven per cent think their current activity fits with their future plans, which was unchanged from graduates in 2019-20. The proportion who said their current activity was meaningful fell slightly, to 85 per cent.

Steve West, president of UUK and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said the data confirmed that during uncertain economic times, a degree continues to give a significant boost to a graduate’s employment prospects.

“This supports the wide range of evidence showing personal, societal, economic and non-economic benefits of higher education.”

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