International student recruitment – For soft power or hard cash?

It may seem idealistic but internationalisation should strive to deliver a levelling up agenda that frees the world from a bigoted and exploitative past while forging a collaborative and socially just future. That is only possible if leading English-speaking destinations end their obsession with post-study work and start supporting the ‘brightest and best’ international graduates in their transition to the workforce back home.

For the United Kingdom, in particular, it may be the moment for considering radical action that differentiates its approach and creates sustained, transformative relationships with countries around the globe.

Framing the problem

The exodus of talent from the Global South to the Global North is well known and understood with IMF research indicating there is an “...overall tendency for migration rates to be higher for highly educated individuals”.

Small countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America have “lost more than 30% of this group to migration” and there has also been “a sizeable brain drain from Iran, Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan Province of China”.

Particularly troubling is the impact on the healthcare sector in the developing world, with large numbers of highly skilled medical professionals moving from Africa to developed economies, including doctors emigrating from Southern Africa to Australia and nurses and midwives to the UK from Nigeria.

Governments of newly economically powerful countries worked this out some time ago and the scholarship schemes funded by oil or mineral rich states, such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, demand that students return home to provide a return on the investment made by their funders.

Universities in the UK, United States, Canada and Australia are happy to be complicit in that arrangement and spend time persuading government officials to send sponsored students. The reality is that universities have no real stake in where students work after study.

In that respect the clamour for enhanced post-study work rights is underpinned by maximising their financial return from high volumes of privately funded students.

Governments have, arguably, been persuaded that international students reduce the need to fund the sector from the public purse while enhancing the possibility of securing workers in hard-to-fill, though not necessarily graduate-level, jobs.

There is plenty of rhetoric around the ‘brightest and the best’, but it is abundantly clear that, for example, the UK’s surge in postgraduate recruitment has not come from the world’s 50 best universities proscribed by the high potential individual visa route.

Post-study work rights and routes to immigration are generally framed in the context of remaining globally competitive. On reflection, this means competitive against every other self-interested English-speaking country that is so unwilling to invest properly in its higher education system that it sees students from poorer countries as a convenient and interest free source of income.

When universities and government ministers wring their hands and talk of the cultural value of international students they are really saying ‘follow the money’.

Enlightened self-interest

In the UK, levelling-up is part of the Conservative government’s mantra. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak describes its aim as “to create jobs, drive growth, and make sure that people feel enormous pride in the places that they call home”.

The current Home Secretary said at the Conservative party conference last year that: “I think we have got to definitely substantially reduce the number of students, the number of work visas and, in particular, the number of dependants on those sorts of visas.”

While Sunak was talking about the UK, it is within his grasp to help deliver global levelling-up while satisfying the party’s demands for reduction in immigration.

Universities are eager to attract international students due to the revenue they bring into institutional coffers and, in some cases, for wider academic and cultural contributions.

The failure to invest in careers services, or demand comprehensive graduate outcome data, suggests they are less eager to support these students to transition into the workforce. Taking a fresh approach would be both honest and potentially more rewarding in the long term.

The other reality is that post-study work represents a race to the bottom with countries going tit-for-tat in extending and tweaking their offering with some evidence that this leads to students being misled about opportunities to work or seek citizenship.

Over time the reputation of universities and countries will be damaged as thousands of international students find their aspirations thwarted and their hopes destroyed.

Even more near term for the UK is the spectre of thousands of international postgraduates entering a hostile jobs market as the recession bites, fuelling even more animosity toward university recruitment strategies. While the UK may be experiencing skills shortages in some areas of the economy, it is not necessarily in the areas that international students wish to and or are capable to work within.

It is surely a matter of enlightened self-interest for the UK to consider how to square the circle and ensure that international students can benefit from a high-quality education and universities get the revenue they need while reversing the longer-term brain drain for poorer countries.

The best form of soft power for Global Britain is to play a genuine role in educating students who return to their country to make the kind of economic and social difference that levels up the world. It is both the best thing to do and the right thing to do.

Making it happen

Using the levers of power involved requires boldness, innovation and transparency that students and country leaders can understand and respect. This includes a reinvestment of some of the money that is flowing into UK higher education from 200,000 additional full-time student enrolments since 2018-19.

A grand and complementary strategy could unify support for international students and for countries that need to see the return of their most able young people.

Steps could include:

• Building the evidence base that graduates who return home are getting better jobs and building substantial careers. It is shameful that the sector has failed to invest enough in modern technology-led solutions to prove the value of a UK degree. International students should see returning to their home country as a success and in their self-interest.

• Engaging with international governments, businesses, UNESCO and anybody else willing to see the UK as a partner in cost-sharing to educate international students who commit to returning to their home country.

• Substantially realigning budgets intended for foreign aid, including cultural links, to make money available to universities who are willing to share investment in scholarships for international students who commit to returning home.

• Imposing a windfall tax on those universities that have seen substantial increases in international student income over the past two years. A 10% windfall tax could secure well over £100 million (US$122 million), perhaps matched from the British Council and foreign aid budget. That money could be hypothecated to support scholarships, career guidance and programmes of study contingent on students returning home.

• Developing partnership schemes with UK businesses investing overseas and overseas businesses operating in the UK with a focus on graduates spending at least part of their career in their home country.

• Accepting that a one-year post-study work period is adequate for any international student to find an appropriate graduate level role in the UK. To ensure even handedness this should be accompanied by investing heavily in ensuring that UK businesses understand the benefits of employing international graduates – to date only 3% of UK employers are even aware of the Graduate Route.

• Requiring universities to be transparent about the funds actually awarded in scholarships and demanding that a percentage require the student to return to their home country after study.

What is suggested resists the current urge to recruit hundreds of thousands of students for purely financial gain and then attempt to deprive the source country of their most capable brains.

Universities would continue to recruit extensively but would be required to ensure that some of the income is recirculated to schemes that encourage and reward students for returning home. These could start on a pilot basis with a limited number of the most deprived countries but over time be extended as the UK becomes a beacon of compassion, quality education and collaboration.

Universities would still get the income but would find they are contributing to the ‘equitable education’ part of Sustainable Development Goal 4 as much as to more selfish commercial interests.

The UK would become more inclusive as an educator and secure long-lasting soft power without compromising what appear to be public concerns over education as a route to immigration. It would also bring significant differentiation from the more aggressive and self-interested approaches that are likely to become the norm among other countries intent on building their international recruitment.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.