Despite the growing interest in attracting and retaining international students globally, research on policymaking related to this group of migrants remains limited, and the evidence base on the effectiveness of given (national and supranational) policies aimed at students is patchy and inconclusive.
International evidence on the impacts of post-study work programmes on attracting and retaining international students is mixed. International student surveys indicate that opportunities for staying in a given country post-study (to look) for employment and gain work experience are highly valued and important (though not most important) in choice of study destination. Moreover, the evidence points to the relative success of post-study work schemes in terms of attracting international students and increasing stay rates of international graduates in the short term (at least for the duration of the programme); the more flexible the scheme, the higher the numbers participating in it. Nevertheless, there is far less evidence on the impact of post-graduate work programmes on the longer-term retention of international students. While the literature argues such programmes facilitate longer-term stay (because the graduates spend more time in the country which in itself supports longer stay, have the opportunity to establish new and strengthen old networks, and to gain valuable work experience), statistical data on the matter remains limited and inconclusive. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there seems to be little systematic monitoring of the impacts of respective post-study work offers across the countries under comparison (with the exception of Canada), or alternatively, such evaluations are not publicly available. There are few statistical data sources that track international student pathways in sufficient detail to make connections between the uptake of given schemes and student retention (plus statistical data alone may be inadequate to draw conclusions about a given policy). Secondly, in some of the countries under consideration post-study work programmes have only recently been implemented (while in others they have been reviewed and changed over the last few years), and it is too early to draw conclusions on their impact on student retention rates in the longer term (i.e. 5 years upon completing the programme and later).
Meanwhile, challenges created by various post-study work policies have been fairly well evidenced, especially in the case of the traditional immigration countries. The main issues identified were connected with corruptive practices on the part of educational providers and employers in given countries (such as New Zealand or Australia). These have led to lowering of educational standards and in effect lowering of the international students’ skills level on the one hand, and labour market abuse of the graduates on the other. Other major challenges found were: underemployment of international graduates, and ‘oversupply’ shocks and increased competition for domestic graduates. This points to the risk of misuse of post-study work programmes and the need for close monitoring of the actors involved in their implementation.
Despite limited statistical data related to the impact of post-study work policies on student numbers, international student surveys and qualitative data confirm that post-study work opportunities are a significant factor in choosing country of study, and therefore play an important role in attracting international students to a given country. However, while such policies may support the goal of retaining international students, they are not the only, and possibly not the decisive factor in making the decision to stay. Being able to look for work in the host country after graduation obviously facilitates stay, yet only initially. Research shows that the stay rates of international students in the first year after graduation are highest yet drop considerably within the next few years. Therefore, if a given country aims at retaining international students longer-term, it should develop additional policies or strategies that would encourage students to extend their stay. The literature underlines the need for, but simultaneous lack of, integration policies aimed at international students. The one European country which is currently leading the way in developing such strategies – with apparent success – is the Netherlands. Germany has also been singled out as an example of good practice in this respect. It is too early, however, to evaluate the impact of these very recent developments (both in terms of implementing flexible post-study work policies and integration strategies) on student retention rates in the longer term.
The literature stresses the importance of indirect policies and factors in retaining highly skilled (or any, for that matter) migrants. Creating an attractive physical and cultural environment is of great importance, and an attitude of welcome within the host country plays a key role in the process. The availability of (suitable) employment is also crucial. Moreover, housing, healthcare, and education policies must all be considered. In some cases these can be seen as even more important than direct immigration policies. This seems the case for EEA graduates who completed their degrees in other EEA countries and who have the choice to move wherever they wish to within the EEA. Their stay rates are considerably lower than those of non-EEA students, for whom the relative political and economic stability in Europe might be an attracting factor in itself. Therefore, successful retention of international students in the long run requires implementing a number of policy measures beyond the post-study work offer: although it is a good starting point in encouraging further stay in the host country, it is by no means sufficient.