Increasing the stay rate of international students

The knowledge economies of OECD countries require highly skilled people, whom they will lack due to ageing populations and falling interest among young people in sciences and engineering. Immigrants with the requisite skills are needed to fill the gaps.

A recent McKinsey report, The World at Work: Jobs, pay, and skills for 3.5 billion people, speaks of a “mismatch between jobs and graduates”. The study claims that, although there are 75 million unemployed young people globally, 39% of employers state that difficulties exist in filling vacancies for skilled labour.

The European Commission, in its recently published Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2012 report, also speaks of a skills mismatch challenge.

Countries increasingly understand that the immigration of skilled people is not always effective, and for that reason international students have become an attractive group of prospective skilled immigrants.

Where in the past OECD countries had an open mind about receiving international students in general and even subsidised their education, currently one can observe a shift in Europe towards encouragement of a more controlled immigration of international students by focusing on talents and measures to increase their stay rate.

The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden have introduced full cost fees for non-EU students and at the same time developed scholarship schemes to selectively target talent and create opportunities to stay after graduation. The Finnish parliament is discussing whether to follow that example.

The pattern of low-skilled immigration from the so-called South to the North, of the past century, has been replaced by a need for highly skilled migrants.

Over the past decades several countries have made it more attractive for highly skilled people to come and work while at the same time restricting immigration of lower skilled people. They have developed post-study job-search schemes, allowing international students to stay in the country after graduation for the purpose of job seeking, and reduced restrictions on work during and after studies and on visa and residence regulations.

For example, the British home secretary, stating that the government is committed to encouraging the brightest minds to come to study in the UK, recently announced that PhD students would be allowed to stay in the UK for 12 months following the completion of their studies, in order to find skilled work or set up as entrepreneurs. And there will be a further 1,000 visa places available each year for MBA graduates who want to stay in Britain and set up their own businesses.

With these and other measures, the British government has reintroduced incentives that had been cancelled in recent years and had made the UK less attractive to international students and skilled immigrants.

The percentage of international students who stay after graduation in the country of study – the ‘stay rate’ – is on average 25% for OECD countries, whereas the regional and local alumni retention rate in general is 60% for all graduates and 70% for masters and doctoral graduates. So, there is room for improvement.

The benefits of an increased stay rate are clear. As Australian expert Lesleyannne Hawthorne, in a chapter of the SAGE Handbook of International Higher Education, states on the subject of those who stay on after graduating: “They confront few of the barriers experienced by foreign-trained professionals, in terms of host country language ability, qualification recognition, or acculturation.

“Their productive lives will be longer, given their youth at point of enrolment. They present a palatable option for countries with ambivalent views on migration, in a context where demographic contraction is fuelling demand.”

Some obstacles

There are obstacles, though, as international students are increasingly becoming calculating consumers who explore the best options in their home country, their country of study and other countries.

Lack of integration, discrimination and a lack of support and understanding on how to access the local job market are important push factors driving international students away after graduation. International students have become consumers who pursue a global career track and look for the best study and work deal they can get.

The German study, Mobile Talent? The staying intentions of international students in five EU countries, summarised the results of an online survey among international students in Germany, The Netherlands, the UK, France and Sweden. Almost two out of three international students expressed the intention to stay after graduation for a shorter or longer period to work. The reality, though, is that only one out of four does so.

The study states: “Although international students do possess a number of qualities that make them an attractive group of skilled migrants, they still require services and support to guarantee their integration.

“Emerging research findings and the results of this report indicate that simply studying in a country is not sufficient to overcome many of the difficulties migrants face, such as gaps in language proficiency, acculturation, visa insecurity and concerns about family migration and discrimination.”

Long way to go

There is still a long way to go in developing more attractive conditions for international students to stay.

One has only to read newspapers in Europe to notice the problems they face: with recognition of their degrees (Norway), with work and visa permits for scholars and students (Denmark), with health insurance (The Netherlands)…

Countries like The Netherlands, which have been boosting their attractiveness by teaching in English, now study measures to encourage the study of the Dutch language and culture as part of plans to get international students to stay and integrate into Dutch society and the job market.

Internships, expanded job opportunities related to their study and a better understanding of the national job application customs are other ways to link international students to the national and local labour market.

In Scandinavia, The Netherlands and Germany there is a feeling that closer cooperation between government, industry and higher education, both at the national and local levels, will be needed.

For the talented among international students it is a good time: they can look for the best deal for both study and work. But for the countries that want to have them study and stay on afterwards to work there is still a long way to go, in particular because competition is intense and the obstacles to success are high.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Catholic University in Milan and professor of internationalisation of higher education at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. He is co-editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education and of the SAGE Handbook of International Higher Education. Email:

* Nannette Ripmeester is director of Expertise in Labour Mobility, a Rotterdam-based company specialising in customised solutions for international labour mobility and its facets. She is also the director for client services (Europe) of i-graduate, responsible for the International Student Barometer which, with 1.3 million student responses, is the largest student survey in the world. Email: