International students ‘struggle to access work experience opportunities in UK’

International students struggle to find access to work experience opportunities when studying in the UK, a report suggests.

Nearly two in five (39%) international students gained no work experience during their time at a British university – and sometimes this is not their choice, according to a survey.

Students reported that competition for placements has been really high amid the pandemic – with one respondent suggesting that UK companies are “timid in the face of a hostile immigration system”.

The report, by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank and Kaplan International Pathways, suggests only just over half (52%) of international students think their university is doing well in supporting the careers support needs of international students.

Some international students feel they are “paying more but getting less” because some careers and employability support is seemingly targeted more at British students, the think tank said.

It adds that overseas students need more careers support if the UK is to remain a destination of choice.

The survey, of 1,051 international students from 118 UK universities, found that 75% of students who say employability skills are embedded in their course are happy with their course and university, compared with just 43% for those who say employability skills are not part of their course.

Students who feel their courses have not covered employability skills are twice as likely to say that, in hindsight, they would pick a different institution to do the same course (18% versus 8%) and three times as likely to say they would go to a different institution to do a different course (12% versus 4%).

It comes as international student numbers at UK universities have been affected by the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 and amid changes to tuition fees for European Union (EU) students after Brexit.

The number of EU students accepted on to undergraduate degree courses is 56% lower this year than at the same time last year, while non-EU international students are up 5%, Ucas data suggests.

The majority (71%) of international students say they plan to stay in the UK to work after graduation, at least for a while, and among those who plan to stay, more than three-quarters (77%) are concerned about whether they will earn enough to support themselves, the survey suggests.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “The quality of UK higher education is unquestionably something the rest of the world respects about our country.

“Demand among international students held up even in the depth of the first global pandemic for a century.

“But we cannot take such strong demand for granted because Brexit has meant a halving in the number of EU students arriving here to study and because other countries also want to recruit more international students, meaning fierce competition.”

The think tank is calling for equal access to work experience opportunities for international students, as well as easy access to support after graduation.

He added: “The primary reason most students attend higher education is to secure a rewarding career afterwards. So the quality of the careers and employability support is critical in attracting more students.

“Yet some international students feel they are paying more but getting less because some support is seemingly targeted more at home students.”

Linda Cowan, managing director of Kaplan International Pathways, said: “With the high fees they pay, students are right to expect effective and comprehensive employability skills and careers support, and this is all the more important when it is a key factor in the decisions they make about where to study.”

She added: “If the UK is going to compete globally for international students, ensuring that they get the support they need to prepare for future careers, in the UK or their home country, would set the UK apart from other countries.”