Post study work visa options: an international comparative review

This report presents the main findings of a literature review examining how the UK’s post-study work offer compares with those of its key competitor countries.

Trends in international student migration

International student migration: key facts and figures

The popularity of international education continues to grow, and the volume of student mobility is at an all-time high. In 2015, there were an estimated 4.6 million globally mobile higher education students, a massive increase from the 2.1 million students who went abroad in 2001.[11] The US, the UK, China, France, and Australia rank as top host destinations of international students worldwide and collectively host an estimated two-thirds of all international students. In terms of student numbers, the US is the global leader for international students with 971,000 students in 2016, followed by the UK which had 432,000 international students in the same year. At the same time, however, international students comprised only 5% of the total student population in the US as compared to 18% in the UK.[12]

The academic levels and degree types pursued by international students vary by destination. For example, degree seeking undergraduates form the majority of international students in New Zealand (75%) and Australia (50%), while Germany attracts more graduate full-degree students (53%). This may partly be explained through the role of language: Germany (as well as all the other non-English speaking countries considered in this review) offers study courses in English predominantly at the second and third cycle, i.e. Masters and Doctoral levels.[13] In the US and the UK, degree-seeking international students’ academic levels are more evenly divided. A large proportion of students in these key destinations pursue STEM fields, including 50% of all international students in Germany and 46% in the United States.[14]

Asia remains the top source region for international students globally, including in the key destination countries. China and India are the major source countries for international students to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US, and an (increasingly) important source of flows into European countries as well. Considering the demographic and socio-economic conditions in China and India, these two countries may be expected to continue being the lead source countries for international students worldwide.

In the US, students from across Asia accounted for 66% of all international students in 2015/16. Since 2001/2002, students from China and India have consistently accounted for the largest international student populations in the country. In 2015/16, Chinese students reached a high of 328,547, comprising 32% of all international students in the US and by far exceeding those from any other country for the seventh consecutive year. The number of Indian students in the same year came up to 165,918, growing by 25% since the previous year.[15]

This pattern is replicated across the traditional immigration countries: Chinese students lead in terms of international student numbers in all of them, followed by students from India. In 2017, their numbers in the other traditional immigration countries were: in Australia – 114,006 from China, and 44,775 from India; in Canada – 132,345 from China, and 76,530 from India; in New Zealand – 31,075 from China, and 19,585 from India.[16] In Australia, over one third of students in June 2018 were from China (23.1%) and India (14.4%).[17]

The position of Chinese and Indian students is slightly different in the European countries included in this review, especially for the latter. While China is among the top 5 source countries of international students in each of the EU countries, this is not the case for students from India who are outside the top 5 in France, Ireland and Sweden. In the EU member states, main countries of origin of international students are often state-specific with historical and linguistic ties, as well as established collaborations (such as bilateral agreements) playing a key role in shaping flows. For example, the colonial history and linguistic ties of France is clearly reflected in the main international student origin countries, with high numbers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal. 

Finally, universities carry out their own recruitment campaigns in various countries, sometimes reaching out to new destinations. Their efforts are increasingly impacting on students’ choice of place of study and hence on mobility flows, as discussed in more detail the following section. 

Factors shaping student destination choices

Already at a high, numbers of students wanting to study abroad are expected to continue growing. Leading world universities have been competing for international students for decades as hosting them brings clear financial benefits, undoubtedly adding to the host country’s economy. Nevertheless, it is fairly recent that international students have also become included in the global ‘competition for talent’ as a potential (future) workforce. Previously this ‘competition’ focused predominantly on attracting highly skilled workers who already had the qualifications and skills in demand. However, the growing recognition that students will join the pool of highly skilled workers within a few years has spurred global competitors for talent to extend their activities to this group. Students are now being portrayed as an ‘adjunct workforce in waiting’ which is worthwhile retaining: international students have the advantage of being qualified locally and already being familiar with the host country, as opposed to highly skilled workers recruited from abroad. Therefore, countries worldwide have been developing policies and strategies aimed at attracting international students – not only to boost the education sector and the economy, but also with a view to retaining this future skilled workforce longer-term. Their actions shape current migration flows of international students to some extent and draw them to new destinations. 

Ireland may serve as an example here. Currently, Ireland has relatively low numbers of international students in comparison to the other countries under review. Nevertheless, its recently developed internationalisation policies and strategies, a concerted effort of the Irish government, universities, and other agencies, are already bringing positive results. The policies and strategies applied include worldwide outreach (such as organising student fairs in various countries), making the application system for international students easy and accessible (they can apply online), and increasing the flexibility and attractiveness of Ireland’s post-study work offer. Ireland has indeed achieved considerable success with a substantial growth in international student numbers in the 2000s: from 4,184 in 2000/01 to 10,981 in 2012/13.[18] It has also successfully diversified the range of countries of student origin, with enrolments from the more obvious source countries such as China, India, and the US (which has historical ties with Ireland) but also new source countries such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia.[19] Germany may also serve as a fairly recent example of a country shaping student flows within Europe. In order to attract more international students, Germany has inter alia developed information websites in English, established missions abroad providing information and advice to potential students and graduates, and has implemented changes to its post-study work offer. In consequence, the numbers of international students coming to Germany are growing rapidly,[20] and the country has already exceeded its target of attracting 350,000 international students by 2020.[21] Therefore, new policies and strategies aimed at attracting international students may indeed bring effects and hence shape student flows. While the UK and the traditional immigration countries are well-established destinations for international students this is not the case for their European competitors.  How their efforts to attract international students will impact on student flows in the longer term remains to be seen. 

One factor that works to the definite advantage of English-speaking countries in terms of attracting international students is language. Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the US all have a clear linguistic advantage over non-English speaking competitor countries as English remains the most popular language of study for international students globally. With the exception of Ireland, English-speaking countries are among the largest hosts of international students, especially the US which hosts about one-quarter of all the world’s globally mobile students – roughly twice as many as the UK, which is the next largest host country. Taken together, 50% of the world’s international students take up studies in five English-speaking countries (United States, UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand).[22] The key importance of English as a medium of instruction has been recognised by non-English speaking countries aiming to attract international students and these are increasingly expanding their educational offer in English. All the non-English speaking countries under review belong to this category, with each, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Sweden, offering high numbers of courses taught in English. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, the majority of these courses are offered at higher degree level (Masters and above) while their undergraduate offer to international students in English remains limited. This undoubtedly decreases their competitiveness against English-speaking countries.

The importance of post-study work schemes in attracting international students is often underlined in the literature and reflected in student surveys.[23] A post-study work offer may impact on student choices as:

  • prospective students may find the sheer opportunity of gaining work experience in the host country appealing;
  • they may be looking for opportunities for longer-term migration and hence see the post-study work route as attractive; 
  • they may see an appealing post-study work offer as an indication of an overall favourable climate towards international students/migrants in the host country.

Therefore, while the post-study work offer may be seen as attractive per se it can also be perceived as a signifier of attitudes towards immigrants in the host country. As Mellors-Bourne et al. put it: In a modern inter-connected world where students, prospective students and their influencers are involved in many social networks, perceptions of tighter immigration controls may for some paint a picture of an unwelcoming student destination.[24]

Indeed, it has been found that tightening regulations for post-study work offers or cutting these down have had a negative impact on international student numbers in the years immediately following the change. For example, research has shown that a key factor in the declining proportion of international students choosing the UK as their study destination after 2012 (when the post-study work route had been closed) was the country’s comparatively poor post-study work offer. In 2015, a study[25] found that 36% of prospective students who chose not to study in the UK cited post-study work options as the principal reason for this decision. Two very similar concerns followed: about job prospects in the UK, and ability to stay in the UK after completing their studies. Similarly, it was found that stricter visa controls introduced in Australia in 2008 led to a decline in international student numbers.[26] 

As follows from the above, while international students’ motivations to choose given destinations are to some extent shaped by the scope of action created by government policies and the policies of higher education institutions (henceforth HEIs), there is a whole host of other factors prospective students take into consideration. Some of these are related to the home country, such as demand vs. supply of tertiary education courses (e.g. in China demand outstrips supply which motivates many Chinese young people to study abroad) or type and scale of sponsorship programmes available. Moreover, some of these factors are unpredictable, such as currency fluctuations and changes in exchange rates, hence their impact on student choice may change over time. For example, New Zealand, a highly popular and established student destination, experienced a considerable drop in international student numbers as the exchange rate between the New Zealand dollar and the US dollar changed.  As the value of the New Zealand dollar increased in 2006, the number of international fee paying students enrolled in New Zealand universities decreased. A clear correlation between growth in exchange rates and decline in (fee paying) student numbers can be intuitively expected: a higher rate of a given currency makes it relatively more expensive to study in the destination country and therefore reduces its attractiveness to students. Conversely, the fact that e.g. Germany is a relatively cheap country to live in increases its attractiveness.  

It also needs to be underlined that policies aimed at attracting international students cannot be viewed as separate from other political developments in potential destination countries. The rise of nationalism around the world, and what is perceived as a turning inward, may also have impacts in terms of international student numbers. In this context, the literature mentions recent developments in two major destination countries: the Brexit vote in the UK (2016), and travel bans for nationals of certain countries in the US (2017).  It is expected that Brexit may have far-reaching consequences on student mobility into and out of the UK, as well as on student mobility between the UK and continental Europe. Similarly, political shifts in the United States and the introduction of two travel bans against individuals from seven countries in January and March 2017 have raised many questions about the effect these developments will have on international student mobility from affected countries and elsewhere. 

The University sectors in both countries are indeed striving to counter their potentially negative impacts on the sector, for example by lobbying for a more attractive post-study work offer for international students (the UK), or by launching campaigns to send messages of welcome to international students (the US).[27] US-based surveys on the impacts of Trump’s policies on student choices are so far inconclusive. Nevertheless, data gathered in competitor countries may be more useful for such evaluations. For example, a recent study looking into students’ motivations for choosing Ireland as their (potential) study destination provides some insight into the matter. One of the Polish study participants explained her decision to choose Ireland over the UK in terms of the uncertainty around Brexit.[28] What is important here and should be emphasised, is the growing role of international networks in shaping student choices. 

While, as mentioned earlier, universities in the UK and the US have taken steps to offset the impact of negative political developments on the sector, such efforts might not bring expected results. In the age of social media and open communication technologies, it is often international networks which act as key provider of information and reference point. The example of the earlier mentioned Polish study participant is relevant here: she explained there were large Polish communities in both the UK and Ireland, and these were a vital source of information for her. While interactions with the Polish community in Ireland provided reassurance that it was a welcoming country, the Polish community in the UK expressed uncertainty and multiple insecurities resulting from Brexit. This led the prospective student to conclude ‘I think I will not go to U.K. because I don’t want to have those problems [which the Polish community there is experiencing]’.[29]

Summarising the above discussion, we can say seven key factors (related to the host country exclusively) shape prospective students’ choices:

1. The academic offer per se and the international reputation of a given university or a given country’s education system more generally as well as language of instruction/official language of the country;
2. Ease of meeting formal requirements (fulfilling university recruitment and visa requirements);
3. Finances: affordability of studying and living in the host country; sponsorship opportunities in host country;
4. Presence of networks in the host country;
5. General atmosphere in a given country: attitudes towards international students (and immigrants in general), lifestyle;
6. Work opportunities during and after studies; and,
7. For those looking to emigrate permanently – the country’s immigration policy and pathways to settlement post-study.   

Concluding, even when policies towards international students become more open, liberalization does not necessarily translate into desired policy outcomes, such as greater inflow of international students.[30] Future students do not select their study locations based on a given country’s policies alone. Other factors also play a role, including the academic standing of HEIs, language, presence of networks, and feelings/knowledge about the likely welcome.



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