- Employability is now a top priority among international students when planning for study abroad
- Many international students, especially those from developing economies, are keenly interested in studying in countries where there is a clear path toward employment after graduation and after that, even permanent residency
World university rankings such as those produced by QS, Shanghai, and Times Higher Education have for decades influenced prospective international students set on obtaining a prestigious post-secondary education. Historically, research output, funding and endowments, and quality of teaching in various programmes have figured high on the list of factors determining how institutions fare in the rankings. But other than teaching quality, these factors often aren’t the ones students care about most.
Today, many students will apply to a post-secondary institution only if it has a reputation for good employment outcomes. Students now turn to new rankings that highlight institutions with impressive rates of graduate employability, such as QS’s Graduate Employability Rankings and Times Higher Education’s Global University Employability Rankings, and they pore over school websites and marketing collateral for evidence that the overall student experience:
- Includes meaningful linkages with industry and/or professional groups;
- Incorporates work experience projects and internships;
- Features career guidance, support, and networking events;
- Results in good jobs obtained within a short time;
- Produces graduates who go on to have distinguished careers.
Research shows the shift
That employability is now the number one priority for international students is evident in a growing body of research. For example:
- A joint survey by market research firm Decision Lab and the International Alumni Job Network (IAJN) found that the top two reasons that surveyed alumni from Australian, American, British, Canadian, European, and New Zealand institutions chose to study abroad were to improve career opportunities (81%) and to pursue a specific career (43%). The opportunity to live abroad was third (39%).
- According to QS Enrolment Solutions’ International Students Survey 2018, which gathered the opinions of close to 70,000 students worldwide, the top factor influencing choice of course was “It leads to my chosen career” (74%), ahead of “high-quality teaching” (67%) and “affordable tuition” (53%).
- QS’s 2015 How Do Students Use Rankings? study asked students in several countries to prioritise a list of nine ranking indicators to see what a hypothetical “student-created” ranking system might look like. Half (50%) chose “employer reputation” as most important and 47% chose “employment rate.” In comparison, 28% chose research, 16% chose academic reputation, and 10% chose faculty-to-student ratio.
- That same study asked students why they would choose an internationally ranked university. Nearly two-thirds (62%) chose “employment prospects” and 45% chose “connections worldwide.” By comparison, only 34% chose “quality of education” and 28% chose “student experience.”
The extent to which students now link higher education with jobs is strikingly illustrated in a 2019 research study commissioned by academic support company Studiosity among 1,000 Australian students, in which three-quarters of respondents thought that universities “had a responsibility to help them find employment.” Judyth Sachs, Studiosity’s chief academic officer and a former provost at Sydney’s Macquarie University, said that such attitudes reflected students’ “sense of ‘I’m paying for a service, and this is a service that I expect.’”
Implications for recruiting
Many international students, especially those from developing economies, are keenly interested in studying in countries where there is a clear path toward employment after graduation and after that, even permanent residency. Not coincidentally, major destination countries with rapidly expanding international student populations, such as Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Japan, offer solid post-graduation work rights.
In contrast, work rights for international students have been curtailed over the past five years in the UK. In the US, there are rumblings of a looming tightening of both student visas and post-study work rights. In both countries, international student numbers have either declined or flattened over the past two years.
It is important for governments and institutions alike to ensure that international students truly understand the conditions that would allow them to work while studying or after they finish their studies. A recent survey conducted by Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) found that the top reason international students chose the US was to improve job prospects. Sixty-two percent expected to work in the US after graduating, and 6 in 10 expected their job search to take less than two months. Those are high and often unattainable expectations, and the negative word of mouth that can result from frustrated international job seekers can be incredibly damaging to a country’s brand as a study abroad destination.
Putting the focus on career outcomes
Perhaps the most immediate takeaway for all educators is that it is highly advisable to highlight the following across their marketing outreach initiatives (e.g., website, social media, brochures, and at educational fairs):
- Employment rates after graduation;
- A programme’s links to its relevant industry or professional fields;
- Successful alumni.
Institutions should ensure they are presenting entirely accurate information about employability outcomes. Co-presenting at the NAFSA 2019 conference in Washington, DC earlier this year, Kirsten Feddersen of SNHU, Ilaria Bossi of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, and Nannette Ripmeester of i-graduate offered a stark example of a university that overstretched its claims. The unnamed university boasted that “90% of our grads actively seeking employment had careers within 6 months,” then added a long disclaimer in fine print to qualify the claim. The extent to which the fine print discredited the claim led to the university being sued by the American Federal Trade Commission and having to offer US$100 million in refunds.
By contrast, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore pitched its attractiveness to students by offering an array of totally accurate facts, including:
- Milan’s low unemployment rate and numerous major multinational headquarters, including Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft;
- The ability of international students to work part time while studying;
- The fact that the university offers two career fairs and more than 400 employment-related events per year, was among the top 150 universities in the 2018 QS Graduate Employability Rankings, and was number one in Italy for “student-employer connections.”
Those proof points are convincing – and beyond dispute. In their presentation at NAFSA, Ms Feddersen, Ms Bossi, and Ms Ripmeester emphasised the wisdom of working with lawyers to ensure that marketing claims about graduate employability are accurate and responsible. Careful presentation of compelling facts about employability is likely to give universities and colleges today an edge in the marketplace.
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