It may be a cliché to say that we’re living through turbulent times, but that’s small comfort to young people around the world who are worried about job insecurity and their future careers.
Factors such as the pandemic, technological change, the climate crisis and remote working are all contributing to a highly uncertain future job market. It’s no wonder, then, that career-readiness is now seen as an essential part of getting a good university education.
In collaboration with Higher Education Policy Institute, we’ve released a new report, which gives a fascinating insight into how international students feel about employability — and whether their expectations are being met.
Career support needs improving
In the report, we commissioned a series of focus group sessions, followed by a survey of over 1,000 international students from more than 100 universities. Unsurprisingly, 82% of respondents said that the careers support they thought they would receive was important in choosing a university in the UK, and 92% said that employability skills were important when deciding where to study.
However, when asked about their actual experience of careers support, the results were considerably more mixed. Despite much good work happening at universities, only about half of respondents (52%) thought that their institution serviced the career needs of international students well. Just 39% did a work placement during their degree, with some students in our focus groups indicating that they did want a placement but were unable to find one.
Earning enough money after graduation is also a concern. While a majority (71%) of international students said they planned to stay in the UK after graduation, at least for a while, they also worried about being able to support themselves. This makes sense: international students don’t have the same in-country support network and other advantages that domestic students will often have, and may face additional barriers when approaching employers.
“I’ve been applying for work experience but have had no success after six months of trying”
However, in the face of such strong demand for careers support, and a powerful desire to gain work experience in the UK, there are both challenges and opportunities for British universities. More specialised and comprehensive careers services for international students will be an appealing prospect to many students, and will help the UK remain a top-choice destination.
Students don’t know what to expect
Another big issue is the expectations gap. When asked how their experience of careers service matched up with what they had expected before starting their degree, 26% of graduates said it was better, while 38% said it was better in some ways and worse in others. This compares with 16% saying it was worse, and just 7% saying it was as expected.
This shows that, in many cases, there is space for universities to more strongly convey the expansive careers services that they offer. A significant proportion of students either expected less, or didn’t know what to expect.
Thankfully, this is easily remedied. Painting a clearer and more accurate picture of what students can expect from a university’s career services could really help: students who know what they are getting when they pick a university are much more likely to be satisfied with their experience.
Based on these findings, there are two things universities should consider. Firstly, to borrow the UK government’s phrase, universities could ‘level up’ the careers support they provide to international students, to create equity with domestic students. This will help assuage the former’s fears about being able to start a career after graduation, and will be especially helpful for when they start looking for work in their home country.
Secondly, universities could also benefit from more clearly spelling out the often-brilliant services that they do offer. Not only will highlighting good careers support help attract international applicants, but will also ensure students are happy with the service they receive while studying in the UK.
When all is said and done, university is about preparing young people for their future. If the UK can show how its universities are preparing students for work in the 21st Century, it will continue to compete globally as a first-choice destination.