How can international learning experiences enhance employability? Critical insights from new graduates and the people who employ them
Wendy Green, Eva King, and Jessica Gallagher
With reports of a downturn in graduate employment rates (Karmel & Carroll, 2016), universities are keen to ensure that their students develop clear and tangible career pathways (Matherly & Tillman, 2015). In this climate, the rationale for promoting “outbound mobility experiences” (OMEs)1 has shifted from the traditional focus on the personal and cultural benefits of these programs to their benefits in terms of enhanced employability. Governments and higher education institutions, which fund outbound mobility programs, now expect OMEs to be transformative of participants’ professional as well as personal lives (British Academy, 2012; DFAT, 2017).
Yet, the benefits of international experience to employers and to new graduates tend to be assumed rather than understood. Researchers have long decried the lack of empirical evidence about employers’ perspectives on this topic (King, Findlay, & Aherns, 2010). Likewise, little attention has been given to the “uses” students make of their international experiences in terms of career development and employability (Potts, 2015). In preference to the term graduate “outcomes,” Rizvi introduced the term “uses” of international education to signify the ongoing, agentic processes through which “students struggle to make sense of their experiences [in a foreign country]; the ways in which they assess their past and imagine their future; and the ways in which they feel positioned and actively locate themselves within dominant [political and cultural] narratives” (Rizvi, 2005, p. 81). As such, Rizvi’s term is consistent with recent work by Bennett (2016), who defines employability as the ability to find, create, and sustain meaningful work across lengthening career lifespans.2 Taking this perspective here, we consider employability to be a developmental and agentic process, which must begin long before students graduate and continue throughout their lives.
Based on a recent nationally funded Australian project, this chapter presents fresh insights on the perceived benefits of outbound mobility experiences (OMEs) to employability, from the perspectives of past participants in OMEs and the employers of new graduates. The research was conducted across three
Australian universities and included the engagement of prominent employers of new graduates in nationally and internationally oriented workplaces.
During the past decade, there has been a notable increase, globally, in the development and promotion of student mobility experiences, as evidenced by the significant funding of programs such as the U.S.’s Generation Study Abroad program, the European Erasmus+ program, the Re-vitalisation Strategy of Japan, and the Brazilian initiative, Science Without Borders, among others. In Australia, the context of this study, the New Colombo Plan (NCP), launched in 2014, was developed by the Australian government to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region by supporting undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region. The program, which encompasses both a prestigious scholarship scheme as well as funding for discipline-specific mobility projects, has made available $50 million to fund approximately 10,000 students annually. Students have access to funding to undertake short- and longer-term study, internships, mentorships, practicums, and research. By the end of 2018, it is expected that more than 30,000 Australians will have been funded to study and undertake internships in the Indo-Pacific through the NCP program (DFAT, 2017).
The rationale behind these initiatives is multifaceted. Mobility programs are expected to not only benefit the individual but also to support broader institutional and national economic and social interests by creating people-to-people links and knowledge sets which benefit educational linkages, corporate relations, and international diplomacy efforts. At the core of these national funding schemes for student mobility has been the aim for students to develop global competencies and have access to a global network of peers, collaborations, and employers. Universities worldwide have been quick to leverage mobility funding schemes, recognising the wide-reaching benefits of international mobility experiences and purported links to strong employment outcomes. Indeed, student mobility experiences have now been almost inextricably linked with the employ- ability agenda in higher education.
OME is widely associated with the development of professionally relevant skills and dispositions (Adams, Banks, & Olsen, 2011), and universities market such programs, promising they will provide participants with a “competitive edge” in a tightening graduate job market (Potts, 2015). Such claims, however, are not well supported by research. There are few studies that have comprehensively examined the impact of OME on employability from the perspectives of new graduates (Potts, 2015) or employers (Crossman & Clarke, 2010; King et al., 2010). Of those studies which do focus on employability, few have comprehensively considered whether the nature of OME - in terms of duration, location, and professional relevance - has an impact on employability. Instead, OME research has tended to focus on areas of personal growth and transformation. While many studies find OME promotes personal growth (McNamee & Faulker, 2001; Pence & Macgillivray, 2008; Van Hoof & Verbeeten, 2005), some have argued that students’ self-reported “transformation” may be a self-fulfilling prophecy (Sutton & Rubin, 2010) and suggest that transformational “epiphanies” can be “fake” or “temporary” (Mernard-Warwick & Palmer, 2012, p. 132).
Among those studies which focus specifically on OME graduates’ perspectives of employability, Teichler and Janson (2007) found that former ERASMUS students did not believe that their OME advantaged them in terms of income and social status during their early career. Indeed, they felt that the professional value of OME was declining, although it remained professionally valuable for central and Eastern European students. In contrast, Franklin’s (2010) American study revealed that the majority of OME alumni, 10 years after their international experience, believed that the knowledge, skills, and self-awareness gained through OME were professionally applicable, and that their international experience had positively shaped their career path, leading them to gravitate toward positions with an international or multicultural dimension.
Findings regarding the professional value of OME may be context-specific (Potts, 2015). Potts’s (2015) study of Australian OME alumni provides insights into the benefits of international study in relation to employability, current job, and early career development. Participants in this study identified the development of at least four areas associated with employability: communication skills, teamwork skills, problem-solving skills, and self-management skills. Potts also found that the majority (65%) of respondents believed their OME was most helpful in obtaining their first job, but less relevant once they began work. The majority (63%) believed that their OME would have a positive impact on their longer-term career prospects, however. There is some evidence that this expectation of future value may be warranted (Crossman & Clarke, 2010; Molony, Sowter, & Potts, 2011; Prospect Marketing, 2006).
Further research is required in order to understand employers’ perspectives on OME. While several studies conducted in the EU (Bracht et al„ 2006; Teichler, 2012) suggest that OME is viewed positively by European employers during the recruitment process, one British report concluded that “solid evidence on employers perspectives on international student mobility is a major lacuna in research” (King et al„ 2010, p. 47). When employers were asked in another British study to list the qualities and attributes they look for in graduate employees, international experience did “not come high on the list, if it is mentioned at all” (Fielden, Middlehurst, & Woodfield, 2007, p. 14). In the Australian context, one of the few large-scale studies (Prospect Marketing, 2006) found that more employers in multinational firms (70%) valued OME than did state-based or national employers (43% and 55%, respectively). Norris and Gillespie (2009) found a similar pattern in the United States. The 2006 Prospect Marketing study also found that although overseas study was viewed positively by potential employers, it was considered to be unimportant against other skills, attributes, and experiences when evaluating graduate candidates. A comparative international study (Molony et al„ 2011) indicates that undervaluing of OME by Australian employers has persisted, with the finding that just 34% of Australian employers value international experience in comparison to the global average of 60%. According to Molony et al. (2011), Australian employers’ low appreciation of OME may be because Australian students tend to go abroad to culturally or linguistically familiar places, few employers have studied abroad so they don’t see the benefits, and graduates and universities do not articulate OME benefits in employer-relevant terms while the OME discourse emphasises personal not professional benefits.
Taken together, these studies suggest that our understanding of the professional value of OME from the perspectives of employees and employers is emergent. Broadly speaking, indications are that employers, particularly in international and globally oriented organisations, value OME. Yet, there may be significant regional differences in this respect, with employers in Anglophone countries more likely to undervalue international experience than those in the EU. Regardless of location, however, the research reviewed here suggests that OME alumni must be able to articulate the value of OME in a language relevant to their employer; international experience may have value to employers if graduates are able to reframe their stories in language employers understand (Gardner, Steglitz, & Gross, 2008; Jones, 2013b; Gothard, Gray, & Downey, 2012). As a corollary of this finding, some researchers are pointing to the role universities must play in formally supporting students’ development of professional skills and identities through OME (Gothard et al., 2012; Potts, 2015; VandeBerg, 2007). From these tentative conclusions, new questions arise, including the following:
- • What are the approaches and strategies taken by new OME graduates who successfully secure graduate positions and manage their early careers in their chosen field?
- • How do these “successful” graduates develop and use these approaches and strategies?
- • How and why do current employers of graduates from Australian universities value, or not value, OME?
- • Are there some types of OMEs that are more professionally valuable than others; for example, in terms of duration, location, and work experience opportunities?