Internationalisation and employability: Policy void and possibilities

By Omolabake Fakunle The University of Edinburgh 02 Jun 2021 Opinion
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Drawing on my recent paper this blogpost first highlights an identified gap in research and policy linking internationalisation and employability. Next, the implications of the policy void are briefly discussed, including the limited access to a global pool of talent by employers. This is followed by a discussion of my research findings that points up the constraints and affordances within international higher education as it relates to international students’ perception on employability development opportunities. This underpins the conclusion that an integrated approach to internationalisation and employability is beneficial for all stakeholders; students, higher education institutions (HEIs), policy makers and employers. The benefits include embedding equity in international HE, talent cultivation, knowledge exchange and intercultural engagement as important facets for the future of work in a globalised world.

The disconnect between internationalisation and employability

On the one hand, research in internationalisation studies for the last four decades have mainly focussed on student and staff mobility, international research and knowledge exchange and more recently transnational education (such as creation of branch campuses). Internationalisation discourses mainly centre around student mobility. It is widely known that the economic benefit for recruiting international students underpins competition amongst recruiting host countries. This is unsurprising as the estimate for the global economic contribution of international students was put at US$300 billion, for the 5.1 million mobile students in 2016. This centres internationalisation within a mainly economic driven narrative in terms of benefits to host countries and institutions.

On the other hand, employability is a priority for research and policy development with a focus on developing human capital within a framework of national competitiveness. This forges a close relationship between higher education and policy making, to ensure that HEIs develop employable graduates who are able to contribute to their own human capital as well as the economic competitiveness of their nation states.
The conceptual positioning of the concepts discussed above has resulted in a policy void in terms of connecting these two important agendas in higher education.

Implications of a policy void in connecting internationalisation and employability

In a globalised world, it is problematic and unsustainable to ignore the connection between internationalisation and employability for two main reasons. First, there is research evidence that employability is the main motivation for students’ studying abroad. This suggests that policymakers and HEIs need to put in place commensurate initiatives that will align with the expectations of the international students they seek to attract. Second, in a globalised world, it seems ironical that there remains a lack of research-informed evidence to support the development of policy that intersects these two high priority agenda for higher education. There is an additional implication in terms of a lack of clarity around how or to what extent employers can draw from a global competitive pool of candidates.

I have previously argued about the instrumental and intrinsic rationales for studying abroad through the lens of the capability approach. It is therefore important to mention that the focus on employability in this blog does not negate the crucial role of education to develop critical acuity, a curious mind and other intrinsic benefits of learning. It is equally pertinent to restate the observation by many scholars that a simplistic linear relationship between employability and employment is problematic. The debate points up the state of the economy /job market, employers and other socio-economic factors that may contribute to securing employment or not, regardless of the possession of employability skills.

The research

My research highlights international students’ perception regarding the constraints and affordances that international study offer in relation to developing employability. The findings, thus, provide a framework for HEIs, policymakers and employers to assess the level of embeddedness, or not, of employability development opportunities (EDOs) in the delivery of international higher education.

I consider international students’ reflection-action-consultation (RAC) as a helpful framework to understand how they use their agency to navigate the structures of international higher education. My finding shows that international students’ reflection informs the selection of the HEI where they choose to study, and the lookout for EDOs (internships, volunteering, and part-time work) during their study. The students’ action towards developing their employability was evident in that they sought work opportunities that they perceive will give them a competitive advantage in three ways. First, to develop their skills. Second, as a way to signal their competence to future employers. Third, to enable them to foster international networks for the short term and in the future. However, the students encountered constraints that impeded their aspirations. The main constraint was the limited opportunity for work experience. This was exacerbated by a lack of work integrated learning opportunity on their programme.

Just over half (58%) of the students engaged in volunteering during their study abroad. However, the volunteering usually lasted for a day, or for less than a week. It is unclear how the length of time or the type (unrelated to field of study) of volunteering experience may have an impact on employability development. Despite trying, none of the students secured an internship in the UK or Europe. One student went back to her home country (USA) for a summer internship, due to what she described as a lack of opportunity. This point was echoed by the other participants in my study. The common factor that limited the student access to obtaining work experience was due to their status as non-EU international students. They shared their experiences of being rejected for internships and part-time work related to their field of study after potential employers realise that they are international students. This suggests a mismatch in student expectations and the difficult reality they face in terms of finding work opportunities during study abroad. This can be considered as a direct consequence of a lack of connection between internationalisation and employability in policy. It seems ironic that the intentionality evident in internationalisation efforts is lacking in terms of facilitating EDOs for international students.

To explore EDOs within and outside the institution, students’ consultation extends to staff at their School and the University Careers Service. They had mixed results depending on the affordances within their Schools (sample recruited from 4 different Schools in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in a UK university). One school has an established connection with employers in the industry. Work integrated learning (WIL) was offered as a compulsory part of the programme. This meant that students engaged in this integrated EDOs, and they all reported satisfaction with what they described as a ‘rounded’ study experience involving both theoretical and practical elements. In two other programmes, the connection with industry was less firmly integrated as a compulsory element of the programme. Unsurprisingly, there was uneven student participation in EDOs across these two schools. The fourth programme did not have any established relationship with industry. As a result, students in this school talked about having to consult the central Careers Service. However, consistent with previous research, the outcome of students’ consultation across the university does not necessarily yield the support they need or access to work opportunities in the host country.

Conclusion

The differential conceptualisation of internationalisation and employability has resulted in a policy void that is yet to be addressed. The policy void in this area of internationalisation is directly contradictory to equity values in higher education espoused by the OECD. This points up the role of employers working with HEIs and policy makers to facilitate a climate of equity, inclusivity, and access in internationalisation.

Fostering an intentional and deliberate connection between internationalisation and employability has huge implication for talent cultivation, knowledge exchange and intercultural engagement that is needed for the future of work in a globalised world. Internationalisation of higher education enables mobility and diversity withing national educational systems. This affords the opportunity for all stakeholders to re-envision employability and the development of global talent, beyond national borders.