Why would any higher education institution treat international students differently in terms of graduate employability?

“I am truly shocked at the suggestion that any institution would, should or could differentiate between home and international students, reducing tailored support solely because of status”

I have worked in the higher education sector for over 25 years at a senior level, so it takes a lot to take my breath away, but the joint report published today by HEPI and Kaplan – Paying More for Less?: Careers and Employability Support for International Students – has achieved exactly that, says Paul Marshall, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Careers and Enterprise) at University of East London.

The authors strongly question whether the sector has the capacity, resource and, in some cases, the will to meet the career aspiration of international students.

As one of the only Pro-Vice-Chancellors for Careers in the sector, I am truly shocked at the suggestion that any institution would, should or could differentiate between home and international students, reducing tailored support solely because of status.

I have worked as chief executive of a mission group, sector representative body and as the founding chair of a leading HE charity, and in each of these roles I have sought every opportunity to deliver, meet and exceed every student’s career ambitions.

This is certainly not how it works at the University of East London. Let me explain what we do.

As a careers-first institution with a global outlook, we recognise the challenges that international students face, and we address these head on.

Under our Vision 2028 strategy, UEL has rebuilt, from the ground up, a holistic set of activities that will enable us to meet our Industry 4.0 goals.

So, for example, employability, entrepreneurship and business engagement are firmly embedded in the curriculum through a credit-bearing Professional Fitness and Mental Wealth Module. This module is taken by all students, including international students, at every level of study and in every year of their degree program.

The Module focuses on competencies and intelligences that help develop students during their academic courses and in preparation for future work. This approach is applied to all students studying for all UEL degrees, regardless of status. This includes the thousands of students studying with our global family of institutions in Greece, Russia and beyond. Indeed, our institution-wide approach was cited by UUKI/AGCAS in their 2020 report Supporting International Graduate Employability: Making Good on the Promise as a “sector leading case study”.

UEL has also developed bespoke employability provision for its largely international students on post graduate programs to increase confidence and success in applying for integrated placements. In 2021, this approach successfully helped every single one of the 1,000 eligible students fulfil their placement requirements.

Through formalised, student, alumni and employer feedback, a need was identified to advance the program to further meet the needs of international students by:

  • Preparing them for the UK job market and building confidence in applying for roles
  • Developing their understanding of the unique skills they bring to a role through their educational mobility while addressing associated challenges

International students on these courses undertake a 12-week embedded employability module which covers topics such as: adapting to life in the UK, understanding cultural nuances, the UK employment market, and careers pathways. Students learn how to enhance their applications by translating the experience of international mobility into desirable employability competencies and developing powerful personal branding.

Our sector leading Mental Wealth and Professional Fitness Module resulted in the University being shortlisted for the PIEoneer Awards under the category of Employability International Impact Award this September. Some 87% of students said they would recommend this module to their peers. And 86% of students said their confidence had increased with 93% saying they felt well supported on their course.

Our online careers management platform (Career Zone) and integrated Careers Passport provides international students with life-long access to flexible and varied job opportunities to enable them to develop their skills, gain experience and adapt to the UK labour market. We recognise the importance of supporting our international students beyond graduation, so we have invested in an online platform which allows international students to apply for jobs and receive local labour market insights about opportunities abroad, supporting them to be leaders on a global stage.

There is an institutional commitment to provide support before, during and post-studies to international students, ensuring they have access to aspirational opportunities in the UK and abroad.  Our international students are supported every step of the way to develop employability skills, boost their confidence and compete in an ever-changing world, equipped with Industry 4.0 skills.  Moreover, each individual student’s progress towards career readiness is monitored from the moment they enrol on-course until they complete the crucial 15-months post-graduation.

The seriousness of our shared institutional commitment is reflected in the fact that the performance of our students in their Mental Wealth and Professional Fitness modules and the proportion of students achieving necessary career progression at every level of study constitute two of highest priority Board of Governor Key Performance Indicators.

I fully recognise that it is the intention of the HEPI/Kaplan report to open a discussion and I hope that the sector takes up this challenge.  I would very much welcome the University of East London taking a lead in this important debate.

About the author: Paul Marshall is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Careers and Enterprise) at University of East London.