Increasing the “stay rate” of international students

International education is increasingly recognised by institutions and governments as an important export sector. In fact, the economic impact of foreign students’ tuition – along with accommodation, living expenses, recreational and travel expenses, and other in-country spending – has been significant enough to make international education a top export category in many leading destination countries. For example:

But now, these direct economic impacts are more and more seen as just the tip of the iceberg. For many national governments, trade in education services also represents an important aspect of international relations, trade policy, and a means to address labour market or demographic gaps.

As a result, a related goal in many destination countries now is to increase the “stay rate” of talented international students: the proportion of them who choose to immigrate to the new country for a longer term, or even permanently, to live and work. Encouraging such immigration is now being viewed as crucial to the development of competitive knowledge economies, as it stands to help offset the draining effects of – among other trends – low birth rates and ageing populations in many developed countries.

This ICEF Monitor post looks at what can be done, both at a national level and an institutional one, to increase the likelihood that skilled international students will decide to stay on in a host country after their studies.

The stakes are high

Science Guide points out that, “the battle for brains is increasingly being fought by all nations … today’s talents are tomorrow’s knowledge workers.” It cites the example of The Netherlands, which has increased its international student numbers from 35,092 registered in 2006 to over 58,000 in 2012, and which has discovered that:

“… retaining 20% of international students after their graduation would imply economic benefits worth €740 million.”

One research report has looked at which factors “bind” international students to The Netherlands, and its findings can be loosely extrapolated to other destination countries. It is called “Binding International Talent to The Netherlands” and it notes all of the following as influencing the decision about whether to stay or return:

  • Standard of living;
  • Socio-political environment;
  • Degree of access to full rights of citizenship (not fully available to international students in The Netherlands, and thus seen as a con);
  • Degree of administrative difficulties regarding visa/immigration procedures;
  • Cleanliness and safety of the environment;
  • Attractive cultural/recreational opportunities;
  • Welcoming atmosphere (the “family-friendly” environment of The Netherlands is seen as a plus);
  • Linkages and friendships with locals;
  • Degree of availability of career counselling;
  • Support in learning the official local language.

To this we would add, from our own research:

  • Degree of overall social, academic, and administrative support given to international students while they are studying – to make them more comfortable, more quickly, in the host culture and academic environment;
  • Degree of ease regarding spouse/family coming with international students either during study or immediately upon graduation if immigration is desired;
  • Degree of financial support (not all international students are wealthy, and some very talented prospective students will choose one country and/or one institution over another depending on scholarships or other funding);
  • Availability of internships or co-op opportunities – and the ability to make these count toward work experience for immigration procedures.

Countries trying out different strategies

Though the leading destination countries for study abroad are almost all experiencing declining birth rates, jobs-to-skills mismatches, and ageing populations, they are embracing strategies to increase international stay rates to varying degrees.

On the one hand, there is Canada, which of late has been working very hard to lower the barriers for the best international immigrants to stay on in the country. Canada launched the Canadian Experience Class in 2008, and has recently made it easier for international students to use this stream to gain permanent residence quickly.

There are also the EU countries of Austria, Germany, Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, and Norway – all of which allow international student graduates to stay for a period of time in order to search for a job.

Increasingly, Asian nations such as Japan and Malaysia are also pushing for reforms that will boost their attractiveness as study and work destinations.

But on the other end of the spectrum, there is the UK, whose target of reducing net migration to less than 100,000 per year has tightened its visa policies with students – a move that has led some observers to speculate about the long-term impact on the country’s economy.

What to do at the institutional level

Its important for student recruiters in all aspiring international education destinations to be aware of prospective students’ growing awareness of the immigration potential various countries hold out to them when they are researching schools.

If your country has an attractive “stay” angle – including of course safety, beauty, welcoming atmosphere but also increasingly visa/immigration policies, funding, and examples of foreign workers finding a happy and successful place in the host economy upon graduation – trumpet it.

On a smaller scale, communicate every institutional strength available regarding the same “stay” angle:

  • Scholarships;
  • Academic/social/language support;
  • Above average accommodation;
  • Examples of local-international student harmony;
  • Programmes with internship and co-op opportunities;
  • Engagement and research opportunities with job-seeking companies and organisations;
  • Career counselling and support;
  • Opportunities to work during or after the programme of study;
  • Alumni networking.

We recently wrote a post on internships; please consult it for a list of service companies offering help with internships.

Increasingly, students are choosing their study abroad institution and country not just for the study experience – but for the life-long immigration possibilities such an experience may provide. And this important motivation will no doubt increasingly feature in both national and international education strategies as well as the recruitment efforts of individual institutions.



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