When it comes to international education and inbound international student recruitment, it feels like national governments are doing the traditional British dance the hokey cokey.
One moment governments are keen to let international students in, seeing them as the solution to funding their higher education institutions, subsidising research and addressing skills shortages within the economy. Then, in the next breath they want them out due to rising unemployment and pressure on domestic education places, health and housing.
What it fundamentally comes down to is this: relaxed immigration policies, in most cases, do not win elections. Politicians are, unfortunately, more concerned with their own futures than that of millions of aspirational individuals from the Global South looking for a better life.
We have always said that extending post-study work eligibility is a race to the bottom. Although it is popular when it comes to recruiting international students, particularly from Africa and South Asia, extending post-study work is generally unpopular with the electorate. With no effort made to educate business and employers as to the value of international graduates and a relaxing of bureaucracy around sponsorship of international candidates, post-study work rarely lives up to students’ expectations.
In many cases, clumsily named schemes, such as the UK ‘Graduate Route’, are seen to be promising graduate-level jobs in accountancy, engineering, law and big tech when individuals actually end up as baristas, care workers and Uber drivers. One can understand the reality of post-study work ends up being a huge disappointment.
This experience with finding work in their country of study then colours the entire overseas education experience for these graduates, leaving them disappointed and bitter. Many are all too happy to broadcast their experiences on social media and to random strangers.
I personally experienced this in Malaysia where a Russell Group graduate driving a Grab, the Malaysian equivalent of Uber, was all too happy to let me know that his degree was not worth the money he paid, and he was left angry and let down that, even with his prestigious UK degree, he had failed to secure his dream job.
Flip-flop policies are numerous
Examples of flip-flop government policies are numerous: in Australia, despite some effort by institutions to educate employers and prepare international students to transition to the workforce, the latest Australian Graduate Outcomes Survey showed that most migrant graduates are either unemployed or underemployed and poorly paid.
This is as Universities Australia – the lobby group for Australia’s 39 largest universities – has in their view secured a win with the Albanese Government by extending post-study work rights for students studying certain disciplines and securing an immigration review which would guarantee that temporary graduate visas are automatically granted to all international students who complete their study and pass character checks.
In Canada the number of international students has ballooned over the past decade, rising from just over 27,000 in 2011 to over 800,000 international students holding study permits in 2022. This has been driven primarily by students from South Asia, particularly India, whilst in the rest of the world China has been the historical driver of international students studying overseas.
But now the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a provincial agency, says international students face challenges finding affordable housing, maintaining their mental health and understanding Canadian academic culture.
The Netherlands has been a great example of international student growth in Europe. Over the past 16 years, the number of international students has grown more rapidly than the number of Dutch students. In the 2021-22 academic year, 115,000 international students were enrolled in higher education. This is three and a half times as many as in 2005-06, when the number stood at 33,000.
However, recently in the Netherlands a bill spearheaded by MPs Peter Kwint and Harry van der Molen was passed in the country’s lower house at the end of November 2022 calling on Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf to begin limiting the number of international students who can be recruited by universities, citing issues with housing and a lack of immigration checks.
It looks as if 2023 will be the year in which the Dutch government pushes for official rules limiting the influx of international students – a move that will not be popular among many in the university community. Dijkgraaf has already asked universities of applied sciences and research in the country to stop recruiting international students, with limited exceptions.
UK international education is in a parlous state. UK universities have hit their unambitious 600,000 inbound student target almost a decade ahead of time, resulting in much self-congratulation within the higher education sector, but the target was achieved only when the rest of the world’s borders were closed.
UK universities are now faced with a hostile home secretary and probably, if the Labour Minister Keir Starmer’s speech to the UK Confederation of British Industry Conference was anything to go by, an opposition party that is on the same page.
With what is presently an unsustainable UK higher education funding model, particularly without international student growth and 18 days of strikes over university staff’s pay and conditions to look forward to, the outlook is bleak, to say the least.
When it comes to the US, things have been quiet with the most recent government announcement made as far back as July 2021.
The statement reflects what colleges, universities and higher education associations have stressed in recent years as international student enrolment declined during the Trump administration and suffered further blows during the pandemic.
It states: “Government policies and practices must ensure that the United States remains the destination of choice for international students and scholars.”
Our expectation is that the Biden administration will focus on domestic policy and will remain tight lipped on international students until after the next election which, should the Republicans win, will mean all bets are off when it comes to international education in the US.
A simple solution
So what is a solution to what seems an interminable hokey cokey when it comes to the relationship between international education and immigration? The solution is both simple and not financially prohibitive if it is data driven and committed to by higher education institutions worldwide.
Let us end the fixation with post-study work rights as a means to drive international student recruitment and pivot towards supporting international students transition successfully to their early careers back home.
This not only dodges the immigration bullet that is unpopular with politicians of all colours, but it also ends the brain drain from the Global South to the Global North.
With universities happy to espouse their commitment to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, one would have thought that international recruitment strategies reliant on taking skills out of developing economies to be redeployed in industrialised nations was contrary to such lofty and worthy aims.
Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD.