In Australia, international students account for more than 20% 1 of tertiary education students – the highest proportion of international students in all OECD countries. With most overseas students being self-funded 2, the country is aware that enhancement of positive employment outcomes is crucially important for maintaining and attracting international students. Australian universities have therefore made significant efforts to embed soft skills and hands-on experience in teaching programmes so that international students are better equipped with employability skills and become more competitive in the labour market. These initiatives aim to respond to current labour market trends where employers are becoming less focused on academic performance in recruitment decisions, and are instead interested in seeing the package of soft and practical skills, and knowledge articulated by graduates.
A recent study 3 by Monash University however found that initiatives aiming to only enhance employability skills are insufficient for improving international students’ competitiveness in the labour market. This is because the improvement of employability skills is a long and challenging journey. Even if international students make improvements in employability skills, local counterparts often still dominate the employment battle, as they simply tend to have better generic skills and a deep understanding of the local context. This study then argues that instead of only narrowly focusing on enriching employability skills, international students need to invest in developing other forms of capital including social capital, cultural capital, identity capital and psychological capital. Social capital are social networks with supervisors, mentors, family members and social organisations. Importantly, international students tend to have limited social networks in the host country, so they need to develop relationships with “significant others” who could enable them to find a “short cut” to approach potential employers.
Identity capital is the image that students need to build to sell themselves as a careerist in their area of profession. This image needs to be seen in embodied and literal forms. Psychological capital are the capacities that graduates need to build to overcome barriers, adapt to new situations and respond proactively to inevitable career challenges. Finally, cultural capital is the articulation of understandings about the working culture, dispositions and insights typically valued within organisations.
The study unpacked a profound finding, that international graduates had a greater chance of success if they know how to strategically interlink these forms of capital to sell themselves as fully-rounded candidates with broad personal qualities. For instance, their studiousness and persistence could be used as a distinct credit to build identity as a careerist. This image can then be leveraged to establish relationships with “significant others” who create opportunities for them to approach potential employers. The study stresses that out of these forms of capital, international graduates experience most challenges in terms of cultivating the appropriate forms of cultural capital, mainly in the embodied and linguistic form, and this presented barriers to entering different fields. A limited understanding of workplace conventions can cause them a range of employment issues. For instance, they might fail to present as a competitive candidate due to their limited understanding of hidden rules in recruitment expectations. They may also face communication struggles simply due to their inadequate knowledge in finding appropriate daily conversation.
The study therefore emphasises that international students need to see the preparation for employability as a long and open journey, and they need to be engaged both inside and outside the university to build and enrich these forms of capital. They then need to be clear about possible career pathways as early as possible to invest in developing and articulating these resources. To prepare international students for this journey, Australian universities need to make a shift in marketing and communicating the role of their education. At the moment, universities are taking the “solo-responsibility approach” which sees study programmes as sufficient for facilitating international students’ preparation for employment — an inadequate approach but empowers the image of universities. It is time for Australian universities to take a “shared-responsibility approach” in which international students are invited to take responsibility for exploring and seeking diverse possibilities for negotiating their employability trajectories. This approach might disempower the current reputation of universities, but it is far more realistic in preparing international students for long-term employment.
Figure 1 below summarises resources that support the negotiation of international students’ employability. These include the employability skills taught in university study programmes, the development and utilisation of personal qualities and the activation of students’ agency in using their resources strategically.
Dr Thanh Pham is currently a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. Thanh has worked in higher education for ten years and is currently researching graduate employability. She has received numerous local and international awards for research in internationalisation of education and graduate employability.
Chris Thompson is an Associate Professor in Chemistry Education with a background in physical chemistry. He has published over 50 papers in the fields of both science education and his native discipline of spectroscopy. At the Faculty of Science, he has focused on curriculum and assessment reform across all year levels, and paid particular attention to the employability of Science Graduates from all disciplines. He currently serves as Associate Dean (Education).
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
- Forms of capital and agency as mediations in negotiating employability of international graduate migrants. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14767724.2019.1583091