Retaining international graduates: an overview of factors and considerations
As mentioned in the previous section, international students are becoming an increasingly desired resource and many countries have been shifting their migration policies with a view to attracting and retaining this group of migrants. In the previous section we analysed the various factors which play a role in shaping international students’ choice of study destination. In this section we shall move to the question of student retention. First, we will take a closer look at factors impacting on student retention, and especially the role of post-study work programmes. We shall then analyse the impacts of student retention – both positive and negative – on the source country but also on the international students.
Factors in retaining international students
The key factors determining international students’ decisions to stay or leave the host country upon graduation are:
1. Work permit regulations and work opportunities around the time of graduation;
2. Having work experience in the host country, especially in a field related to the field of post-graduation employment;
3. Proficiency in the host country’s language (which largely impacts on work opportunities);
4. Length of time spent in host country and social ties developed there (especially close ties such as marriage/partnerships, starting a family);
5. Economic, political and social conditions in the host and home countries (and potentially in other countries) at the time of graduation.
The factors listed above are largely interconnected. Being able to meet the formal requirements of work and stay after graduation is of course crucial to remaining in the host country; therefore, the more flexible the requirements, the greater the potential for international students to stay after completing their studies, at least for some time. Work opportunities in the host country also play a crucial role in decisions to stay. However, these are often compared to conditions in the home country – along such factors as political stability and social climate. The more favourable the opportunities and atmosphere in the host country, the higher the propensity to stay. This is especially visible when looking at migration decisions of international students from OECD vs. non-OECD countries studying in the EU: stay rates are typically very low among students from other OECD countries and much higher for students from less developed or politically less stable countries. Research also points to the key role of language in shaping opportunities for further stay. Lack of fluency in the language of the host country, especially spoken, has been identified as a serious barrier to finding employment in the host country for many international students. This may be especially true for students of English-language courses in non-English speaking European countries, such as Germany, France, the Netherlands or Sweden. While high-quality study courses in English attract many international students to these countries, their lack of or poor knowledge of the host country’s native tongue often proves to be a major barrier to finding employment there, and hence being able to stay. Insufficient language skills are also problematic for many non-native English speakers studying in English-speaking countries.
Finally, research points to the crucial role of time and relationships built over time in encouraging further stay in the country of migration. It is natural that the stronger the ties in a given place, the more difficult it is to leave it. In these terms, social integration into the host country’s society also plays a highly significant role in student retention. Findings reveal a gender difference in this respect, with women tending to be more inclined towards staying in the host country than men. Therefore, the main conclusion drawn from literature on student decision-making is that ‘international graduates do not decide lightly where they start their career after graduation. Instead, they stay if they consider a destination to be a country of social and economic opportunities, as other types of migrants do as well’.
The role of post-study work programmes
The post-study work option is a policy instrument which may crucially support the goal of retaining international students as:
1. It allows them to seek opportunities in the host country’s labour market, often with few or no restrictions, hence providing time for ‘experimentation’ and increasing chances of finding (suitable) employment; moreover, if relevant employment is found, it allows for accumulation of work experience which may count towards permanent residency requirements in some countries;
2. It extends the time spent in the host country, which:
a. supports developing new or stronger networks and ties there, which in turn increases chances of longer-term stay, and,
b. adds to the period required to fulfil permanent residency requirements;
3. It is a symbolic indication of a positive attitude towards students (and migrants more generally) in the host country: a sign that they are valued and are welcome to stay.
Research proves that having worked during one’s studies in a field related to the field of post-graduation employment increased the likelihood of staying. Such job opportunities during studies might have served as an entrance ticket to the labour market, for instance by granting more direct access to job networks or by providing more country- and occupation-specific human capital. Furthermore, in some countries relevant work-experience supports the application for permanent residency. This is a requirement for certain permanent residency streams in Canada, for example.
Moreover, it has been found that the length of time spent in the host country has direct impact on longer-term stay. As research demonstrates, plans change with time, with time spent in the country, with meeting new people, and all this impacts on migration decisions. Since the post-study work scheme extends the time spent in the host country and provides further opportunities for meeting people and gaining work experience, it enhances the whole experience of living in the host country and is commensurate to encouraging longer stay.
Research on post-study pathways of international graduates in Norway found PhD graduates to be significantly more likely to remain in the country, as were those who had started a family. Moreover, it was found that having worked during one’s studies in a field related to the field of post-graduation employment increased the likelihood of staying. Therefore, it can be assumed that opportunities to work in one’s field following graduation may have similar impact on international students’ stay rates. Moreover, in the case of certain countries and/or nationals, time spent in a post-study work programme will count towards length of stay requirements for permanent residency.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, post-study work opportunities are often seen as a symbolic reflection of the overall attitude to international students and migrants in a given country. Feeling welcome in the host country is of considerable importance for making the decision to stay there.
Benefits and challenges of retaining international students
International students, who have already acquired social and cultural experience in the host country, are generally portrayed as precious human capital or ‘an adjunct workforce in waiting’ which can significantly boost the host country’s economy. Consequently, an increasing number of industrialised countries are re-tailoring their policies to retain highly skilled foreign graduates. Nevertheless, retaining international students also brings challenges – to the host country and to the graduates. In this section we will consider both the benefits and challenges (related to the host country exclusively) of retaining international students.
The literature points to the following key benefits of retaining international students post-graduation:
- They bring financial gains to the host country;
- They are a valuable demographic and economic resource;
- They may become ‘transnational representatives’ of the host country, a source of information and advice for other prospective immigrants.
Research shows that retaining international graduates has a positive economic impact on the host country. For instance, a 2012 study by the Dutch Government shows that if only a modest 2.5% of international graduates remained to work in the Netherlands, this would result in positive long-term effects on public finances, over and above the recouped investment. The Netherlands has furthermore estimated that at a stay rate of at least 19%, international graduates who remain in the country provide a net profit of at least €1.64 billion annually.
Significantly, international students have the potential to offer governments and employers a ‘productivity premium’: they are typically much younger than highly skilled migrants recruited from abroad, they face no regulatory barriers (as they have gained professional qualifications within the host country’s training system), and their careers are likely to span decades. The young age of international graduates means they are also a valuable demographic resource: they may be expected to start families in the future and their young profile helps balance that of the ageing populations in advanced economies. Moreover, research confirms they are much more likely to integrate well into the host country’s labour market, and have overall higher employment rates (and often higher earnings) than migrants with the same skills recruited from abroad. Taking the example of Australia and looking at graduates’ employment rates in the years 2009-2011, 99% of former international medical students were employed within four months of course completion, compared to 57% of medical migrants within five years of arrival. Full-time employment rates for students qualified in dentistry, pharmacy, and nursing were 98%, 96%, and 66% respectively as compared to 40%, 32%, and 66% for skilled migrants recruited from abroad in their first five years in Australia. Furthermore, international graduates who enter the labour market as highly skilled workers may also create ‘significant positive externalities’ that trigger an internal migration dynamic within and across occupations and professional networks and can create ‘peer-attracting professional and sociocultural environments’.
On this last note, international graduates should not be seen as a tool for alleviating skill shortages or demographic issues exclusively. They can also act as ‘ambassadors’ for the host country by becoming ‘international information brokers’ who provide information and advice on the host country to their (personal and professional) networks. Therefore, if their own experiences are positive and they deem the host country commendable, they may encourage others to immigrate to the country, or reinforce its positive image abroad.
Retaining international graduates, though generally seen as a positive phenomenon, can also create a number of challenges, both to the host country (and domestic labour) and to the graduates themselves. Different post-study work policies have brought about the following issues:
- Political tensions;
- Oversupply of graduates with certain degrees in local markets and hence increased competition for domestic graduates;
- Down-skilling and/or lower earnings for international students/graduates;
- Abuse of international graduates by employers;
- Issues with integrating into society and/or the labour market.
In policy circles, the belief that international students are a valuable resource and their retention is beneficial to the host country is generally accepted. Nevertheless, this does not mean it is universally supported. Contemporary states are faced with the challenge of how to regulate migration in the face of economic forces that push them toward greater openness, while political logic and security concerns simultaneously push them toward closure. This tension also plays out in relation to international students: the UK is a prime example of a country which has shifted immigration policies related to students towards closure at a time when many other of its competitor countries have been moving them towards greater openness. Nevertheless, this does not mean that retention of international students is universally accepted in the other competitor countries. For example, at the beginning of 2018 a public debate emerged in the Netherlands whereby the growing number of international students is considered as a problem by some actors in the academic landscape as well as policy-makers. Similar debates also regularly surface in traditional immigration countries, such as Australia or the US. As a result, international students are not always perceived as an asset, and individuals and groups (not only policymakers but also education providers and employers) have to lobby and negotiate to make specific policies possible. This, in turn, means that they are subject to change depending on the political, economic and social climate in a given country at a given point in time. Still, despite country-specific contexts and considerations, there has been a definite move towards openness of policies towards international students in many competitor countries, as exemplified by the growing popularity and flexibility of their post-study work programmes.
International students are associated with highly skewed enrolment patterns and are ‘overrepresented’ in certain study programmes. This, in turn, may impact negatively both on their success in the host country’s labour market and on domestic graduates. Research from Australia demonstrates that the oversupply of graduates in certain fields increases competition for employment and leads to lower employment rates, underemployment, lower wages, and lower job satisfaction for international graduates in comparison to Australian citizens and permanent residents of migrant background. In the US, in turn, it has been argued that oversupply of international graduates of specific degrees creates increased and unfair competition for domestic graduates, and this has been borne out by a number of studies. For instance, a 2009 study by Borjas on retention of international PhD graduates in the field of science and engineering found that the ‘supply shock’ of such graduates in the early 2000s led to depressing wages by 3 to 4% as well as the flight of US scientists to professional occupations that had not been ‘targeted by immigrants’. As follows, if international graduates add to the ‘supply shock’ in given sectors and/or local labour markets, they may also add to pressures on the domestic labour market and for domestic workers. Though international literature argues that increases in the supply of immigrants may have little or no impact on local labour markets, this relates to contexts where migrants complement rather than substitute domestic labour. However, as illustrated by the US case, oversupply of international students with given degrees at given points in time may lead to labour market substitution rather than complementarity, and hence to negative labour market outcomes for domestic graduates – a problematic issue if protection of local jobs is a primary policy aim. Indeed, in the US the growing numbers of international graduates in certain fields has caused much concern and has led to lobbying for more protection of domestic workers’ rights. However, it is difficult to predict the actual effects of oversupply of international graduates on labour market outcomes for domestic graduates: this depends on a number of factors, such as the spatial distribution of the graduates, the state of the (local/national) economy and development of given sectors, or the degree and pace at which new jobs are created.
Furthermore, research from a number of countries demonstrates that international students earn less than domestic students. In New Zealand, for example, the median earnings for young, international graduates tend to be lower than those for young, domestic graduates in most fields of study and at all qualification levels except doctoral level.
New Zealand has also faced other challenges resulting from the post-study work policies implemented which resulted in discontinuing one of its programmes last year. Up till November 2018 New Zealand operated two streams under its Post-Study Work Visa programmes: the Employer-Assisted Stream and the Open Stream. Following a review which highlighted serious abuse of the system, the Employer-Assisted Stream was closed. The Employer-Assisted programme basically provided a straightforward route into permanent migration: it tied the students to a particular employer and after completing the programme with them they could qualify for a resident visa under the Skilled Migrant Category. This resulted in serious abuse of the system giving rise to a whole exploitive ‘international student migration industry’. It was found that some HEIs created bogus study programmes for international students or would seriously lower their degree requirements. Furthermore, some of these HEIs also established collaborations with exploitative employers to ensure their students were offered work after graduation: typically low-paid, below the students’ skills level, and in bad working conditions. Therefore, abuse of the Employer-Assisted Post-Study Work Visa Stream led to highly negative (and longer-term) impacts: lowering of skills of international students (and in effect some future residents’ skills set) on the one hand, and their labour market abuse on the other. These corruptive practices also had a knock-on effect on New Zealand’s reputation as an international education provider and a job market for skilled migrants. Therefore, certain policies aimed at retaining international students need to be closely monitored with strict inspection of the actors involved in their implementation.
Finally, despite the general view that international students are ‘by default’ well integrated into the host country, the literature questions this assumption. It points out there is no clear policy coherence between integration policies and migration policies regarding international students, and this has specific outcomes for their experiences and choices. It has to be underlined that, even in countries which have developed integration policies, students are generally not covered by these. It is assumed that international students are already well integrated into the host country’s institutions and culture, and will also integrate well into the labour market. Nevertheless, this is may be a largely false assumption, especially for students of certain nationalities or ethnicities who face many challenges on remaining in the country post-graduation. For example, O’Connor (2018), who looks at the situation of international graduates in Ireland, points to the contradictions in Ireland’s institutional migration policies aimed at attracting students on the one hand, and the lack of diversity policies in a country where migration is a relatively recent phenomenon on the other. The drive to recruit international students sits alongside policies around surveillance, racialisation, increasing restrictions and divisive rhetoric towards non-EEA students. In result, despite generally having high language skills and educational levels, student migrants of various nationalities experience similar difficulties in integration as other migrants, including racialisation and marginalisation.
One key barrier to integrating into the host country’s society and labour market is language. While this might not be surprising in the case of English-speaking students doing courses in countries where English is not the native tongue, it is also a very frequent issue for non-native speaker students doing their degrees in English-speaking countries. For example, poor levels of spoken English among Asian graduates have been identified as a serious problem in Australia and New Zealand, yet the same is true for other English-speaking countries, including the UK. International students may in fact lead rather isolated lives during their studies and have little opportunity to mix with members of the wider society, be it due to remaining within their nationality group or through shyness or reticence. Consequently, their actual experiences of the host society and the living language remain limited, creating serious barriers to employment and/or integration. Although the issue of facing difficulties in integrating is not infrequently raised by international students, the general assumption that they will become well-integrated by the time they graduate holds sway. Therefore, few countries have taken steps to address the issue at national level – it is typically seen as the responsibility of universities who provide pastoral care and ‘student experience’. The Netherlands can serve as a progressive example in these terms: over the last few years, the country has been developing strategies aimed at making international students feel welcome, and these include creating opportunities for them to mix with Dutch students.