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Global University Education: Why It’s So Important to Get Ahead of the Curve

Tess Wilkinson

Tess Wilkinson

Tess Wilkinson is Director of Education Services at Henley & Partners Education.

Student mobility has been a rising trend in the 21st century. According to data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2000, about 2 million students left their home countries in pursuit of education abroad. By 2017, that number had almost trebled to 5.3 million, and it is estimated it will reach a record 8 million by 2025. This trajectory among students clearly reflects universal patterns of increasing movement and globalization. Even the negative impact of Covid-19 on student travel was in large part countered with the aid of online courses and virtual classes, although it did detrimentally affect almost 4 million international students. Despite potential challenges, students and families continue to recognize the importance and relevance of international education. International student enrollment surpassed pre-pandemic levels in the USA in 2022–23, with over 1 million recorded, and student migration reached a record high in the UK in 2022, with 484,000 study visas issued.

To students from all over the world, the benefits of being educated abroad are manifold. Most obviously, such education may be of higher quality than that in their home country. Further, students who pursue an international education have the chance to gain life-changing exposure to different countries, cultures, and languages, making them well-suited for a globally mobile lifestyle. Simply by virtue of living in another country there is a high likelihood of picking up the local language, and research by Albert Saiz, an economist based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Elena Zoido, who holds a PhD in Economics from Harvard, shows that bilingual individuals have a 2–4% higher salary than their counterparts who do not speak a second language. Finally, individuals educated abroad can develop global networks and subsequently secure better career prospects worldwide, a crucially important facet of the internationalized job market.

University students studying together around a table

What employers need

Employment prospects are always a predominant concern of students and their families and guide the choice of universities, target countries, and, especially, extra-curricular activities. To determine the best possible route and interests to pursue, a logical first step is to understand what skills employers value and seek in graduates.

The key in-demand skills have shifted considerably over the past few years. Based on the 2023 LinkedIn annual skills report, it is understood that the job market increasingly places a premium on soft skills, primarily management, communication, and leadership, alongside technical skills, such as software development, data analysis, and cloud computing. The global impact of the pandemic and the subsequent rapid adaptation to remote work have significantly changed the work environment, making clear and direct communication pivotal, both in person and via a variety of channels including e-mail, instant messaging, project management software, and video. Nonetheless, the core qualities and skills of flexibility, critical thinking, problem solving, resilience, and self-management flexibility remain essential in all types of jobs.

Universities and countries that have the best post-study employment opportunities

In the short term, for many students, university is an enriching experience that includes far more than preparing for a future career. However, as the number of excellent educational institutions globally is only increasing and the costs of a world-class education can be substantial, future employability should be a topic of consideration for all students and their families. This has been recognized in the international education advisory sphere too, with the prominent global university rankings now including employability as a factor for consideration.

Based on the latest QS Graduate Employability Rankings, the top three universities globally are MIT, Stanford University, and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Following this are the University of Sydney, Harvard, Tsinghua in Beijing, and Oxford, with other universities in Australia, the USA, France, and Hong Kong (SAR China), completing the top 15. In some of these universities and countries, the curricula have been amended to include professional experience as part of the degree, leading to higher chances for graduate employment. The Henley & Partners Education Report also explores the employability of recent graduates in top destinations globally, further expanding and substantiating this ranking with measurements of income projection, career potential, and economic mobility to provide a more comprehensive overview of graduate opportunities.

Access to post-graduate courses and careers for domestic versus international students

While international and domestic students have equal access to postgraduate education, the strict limits on the number of admissions coupled with significantly higher costs for the same program serve as a barrier for many international students. For instance, in the UK, the average fee of GBP 8,750 for a master’s degree for a domestic student rises significantly to GBP 17,100 for an international student. In similar vein, admissions numbers for international students are capped for some courses, such as medicine, in most European institutions. Fees are not capped, so they tend to rise with inflation each year.

When it comes to securing work after graduation, the ease or difficulty of doing so greatly depends on the country of study and the destination country where graduates aspire to work. In most cases, should graduates wish to stay abroad — which many do — they are obliged to secure employment within their specialist field, obtain a long-term visa sponsorship from their employer, and navigate a complex immigration system. Alternatively, they must return to their home country until such conditions are fulfilled. This leaves many in a precarious situation as they lose out on opportunities in the destination country that possibly cannot be substituted in their home country.

Income potential for domestic and international graduates is also not always equal. For example, interesting data from Canada shows that international students are more likely than nationals to study in-demand courses such as architecture, engineering, mathematics, and IT, but experience lower salaries compared to nationals.

The benefits of international education

It is evident that graduating from a top global university results in tangible, practical benefits. Based on data obtained from the European Study Choice Portal in 2017, 32% of company CEOs worldwide have been educated globally. This metric was obtained after studying 231 top company leaders found in the Forbes Global 2000 company ranking. Clearly, the high percentage of CEOs with a world-class international education serves as a good illustration of the strong link between a global education and a successful career. Along with CEOs, successful alumni of top universities have gone on to become prime ministers and presidents in their home countries.

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