UK risks losing chance to be an ‘outcomes destination’

I am no philosopher, but I recall a Sophocles quote saying: “Chance never helps those who do not help themselves.” It is apposite as I see the United Kingdom’s competitive advantage gained during COVID-19 evaporate in front of my eyes.

Recent data from aggregators, agent networks and pathway providers show Australia surging back into the market, Canada continuing to grow and the United States re-emerging on the scene post-Trump.

Back in November 2020 Asia Careers Group contributed our first article on the state of play with regards to UK international education: “After Brexit, a fork in the road for UK higher education”. The article formed part of a series on the four major English-speaking destinations for international education. We offered scenarios suggesting “Could Australia be the student mobility comeback kid?”, “Is Canada facing a big squeeze?” and “The US eagle could soar again”.

This was then followed up in September 2021 with the “UK must make hay while the sun shines”. In each article we articulated how crucial it was that the UK maintain the competitive advantage it had gained during the pandemic.

Critically, this meant differentiating its offer from other major English-speaking markets by providing better support for its international students, particularly regarding employability and graduate outcomes.

The importance of graduate outcomes

Numerous studies from aggregators, pathway providers, rankings publishers and think tanks have highlighted the importance of employability and international graduate outcomes to international students.

INTO University Partnerships was first off the blocks back in June 2020 with a study highlighting the importance of career outcomes for international students, particularly those from Asia.

This was followed by Tribal Group, whose report said: “It seems safe to say employability outcomes matter for students given an increase in the importance of employability for today’s college graduates.

“International recruitment has seen a growing emphasis on return on investment, making employability not just important for students but also for higher education institutions. Employability attracts, it supports student’s happiness and helps integrate domestic and international students. It also matters for recommendations, turning graduates into brand ambassador alumni.”

Tribal Group were not alone in their findings: research from QS Quacquarelli Symonds says that graduate outcomes and high levels of graduate employability are more important to prospective international students than ever before and highlights that international students cited the careers service as the most important university support service.

This was further evidenced when the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Kaplan released their report on the importance of careers advice and guidance for international students.

Nicholas Hillman, director of HEPI, commented: “The primary reason most students attend higher education is to secure a rewarding career afterwards. So, the quality of the careers and employability support is critical in attracting more students. Yet some international students feel they are paying more but getting less because some support is seemingly targeted more at home students.”

This was backed up by Linda Cowan, managing director of Kaplan International Pathways, who said: “Our report provides new evidence for the importance of employability skills to international students as part of the UK higher education offer. With the high fees they pay, students are right to expect effective and comprehensive employability skills and careers support, and this is more important when it is a key factor in the decisions they make about where to study...

“If the UK is going to compete globally for international students, ensuring that they get the support they need to prepare for future careers, in the UK or their home country, would set the UK apart from other countries. Increased support for international students will also benefit UK students who are looking to develop their careers globally.”

UPP Foundation

The clincher must be UPP Foundation’s excellent recent report, part of the Student Futures Commission, spearheaded by Mary Curnock Cook and an international student sub-committee headed by Professor Mary Stuart, which stated: “International students put employability at the top of their wish list ... There was a huge emphasis on careers support throughout the international student journey: as a key driver behind decisions and concerns pre-arrival, in relation to part-time work and placements during study, and to support graduate careers.

“Employment support both during and after study is a huge opportunity area. The UK sector should seek to develop this as a flagship pillar of the UK international student experience.”

It was felt by the commission that, at a university level, urgent consideration should be given to the allocation of resources to increase employability support throughout the international student journey and that universities should have immediate access to robust representative international graduate outcomes data either through the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA’s) Graduate Outcomes or through alternative sources.

In addition the commission had “significant concerns about the potential impact of the recent decision by HESA to cease calling non-EU students to complete Graduate Outcomes”.

Finally, they concluded that there should be sector-level collaboration to develop a national-level resource that supports international graduates wishing to return home and find employment. This could provide a significant improvement in support.

One could perhaps forgive universities for focusing on other challenges brought about by the pandemic, closing campuses, moving to online or hybrid teaching and changing their recruitment models.

However, when there is mounting evidence showing how critical employability is to international students, why have UK sector bodies (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the British Council, the British Universities’ International Liaison Association, Jisc, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the UK Council for International Student Affairs and Universities UK International) failed to act?

A lost opportunity?

During the pandemic there was ample opportunity to rebrand the UK as the “outcomes destination” in advance of all other English-speaking nations.

During the same period, despite a prolonged lockdown, Australia managed to secure fee-free visas for international students (albeit for a limited period) and totally rebranded their international offer, putting alumni success stories, career selection, employability and work readiness programmes at the heart of their international offer.

What makes this even more frustrating is that HESA has been sitting on international graduate outcomes data since the inception of the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey.

Yet, even with the mounting evidence available as to its importance, they have decided to cease actively calling on non-EU international students for DLHE’s new iteration, Graduate Outcomes. They have done it with little consultation with the sector and despite lobbying from the UK Council for International Student Affairs and Universities UK asking them to reconsider the decision.

Back to that Sophocles quote again. My hope is that, with the official release of the UPP Foundation report at the end of March, all parties with any interest in UK international education will come together and finally act on what has been staring them in the face for the past two years. Alternatively, perhaps it’s time to focus efforts “down under”.

Louise Nicol is the founder and director of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, an edtech company that tracks the graduate outcomes and career progression of international students globally.