AUSTRALIA: Foreign graduates fail job search

Overseas students whose first language is not English are graduating from Australian universities unable to find work in the fields for which they are qualified. As is happening elsewhere, the universities have been accused of allowing students to graduate without the communication skills needed in the workplace.

Two research reports released this month have again highlighted an issue that has been troubling academics with a majority of students in their classes who are not from English-speaking countries: how to prepare those who intend to remain in Australia for employment?

In the first study, Monash University Professor Bob Birrell and research assistant Ernest Healy investigated how successful foreign migrants, including those who graduated from Australian universities, were in finding jobs in their chosen careers between 2001 and 2006.
They report that only a small minority of foreign students who had obtained permanent residency after graduating found work for which they were supposedly qualified. Over the five years, only 22% of Chinese students - who now comprise the largest proportion of foreign students - graduating in accounting obtained professional or managerial positions, as was the case for 21% of those from India.

Yet a majority of Australian accounting graduates were successful in finding work soon after leaving university. The researchers say the reluctance of employers does not appear to be a result of prejudice but rather that the job applicants lack the English skills needed to work as professionals.
"Universities could insist that overseas students take remedial communication courses sufficient to achieve professional standards before allowing them to complete their studies," they write.
In the second report, Dr Tony Burch presents a disturbing picture of overseas postgraduate students undertaking masters degrees in accounting and commerce at Deakin University in Melbourne. Burch, a PhD Fellow in the institute of teaching and learning at Deakin, notes that enrolments in the masters degree programmes have doubled in the past five years with overseas students now comprising more than 80% of the total.

He says the students are mainly from China but an increasing number are from India and Pakistan. The attraction appears to be that as accounting is listed by the Immigration Department as an "occupation in demand", students who complete the course have a strong chance of gaining permanent residency.

Burch reports highly critical comments from his colleagues about the poor standard of students' work with failure rates increasing from 10% five years ago up to 35% today. "There is evidence that many international newly-graduated accounting students have communication and language skills that are a poor fit to the needs of business," he says.

His comments and those of Birrell have been strongly endorsed by many academics and employers across Australia. Professor Kim Watty, director of the teaching and learning unit in the faculty of economics and commerce at Melbourne University, says the English competency of many students is of concern to all stakeholders - employers, academics, the professions and students.
Watty called for additional support staff to help students with their English: "Students who need to improve their English should first undertake a course that develops their competency," she says "But the key issue is where the support is targeted and it should be in the first six or 12 months before a student begins the degree course."

Australia's biggest recruiter of foreign students, IDP Education Australia, has urged universities to introduce English tests before students enrol and again before completing their courses. But Watty says this would mean students who did not have appropriate language skills would miss out on the opportunity for an enriched teaching and learning environment to occur from the very first year.
Last week, vice-chancellors responded to the growing concern about graduate employability by calling on the federal government to establish a national scheme to provide foreign and local students with work experience while studying.

Under the plan, prepared by the vice-chancellors' organisation Universities Australia, state and federal governments, business and industry would collaborate with the institutions to create an internship scheme providing work experience related to the courses students were enrolled in.
The vice-chancellors said the scheme would not only better prepare graduates for the workforce and give them skills so they could be employed immediately but would also mean they could earn an income while studying.

A survey last October of more than 10,000 students found that nearly 40% of foreign students were in part-time or casual paid jobs while studying, 30 per cent worked during their holidays but only 25% actually had work that was relevant to their studies. Few students believed the jobs they had while studying would help them when they graduated as the work was mostly poorly-paid and unrelated to what they're studying.
Universities Australia chief executive, Dr GlennWithers said there was strong support for a national scheme that enhanced students' earnings, learning and employability. Withers said concerns about graduates not being prepared for the workforce were not matters for university action alone.
In their proposal, the vice-chancellors said internships were intended to enhance work-ready skills, in a structured way that complemented traditional studies. Although integrating study and work experience in a systematic way was not new to universities, there was compelling evidence of an unmet need "for generally trained, flexible graduates with relevant experience and enhanced work readiness".