Deepening industry engagement with international students through work-integrated learning.

Author:Jackson, Denise
Position::Contributed Article - Report


This study canvasses employer, academic, and student perspectives on the barriers experienced by international students in gaining exposure to the Western Australian workplace through Work-integrated Learning (WIL). It explores international-student participation in work placements--one example of WIL offerings--as part of their university studies. WIL is highly regarded by international students who seek to gain local experience to improve their employment prospects; it is a key consideration for study destination. WIL also holds significant benefits for industry. These potential benefits include gaining cultural insight, linguistic expertise and, potentially, deepening existing collaborative global partnerships through the placement of participating international students. Findings indicate that a relatively low proportion of international students participate in WIL compared with domestic students. Implications of employer reluctance to engage with international students extend beyond individual employability and may affect international education's status as one of Australia's largest export industries. Stakeholder strategies to alleviate barriers to international students participating in WIL are discussed.

  1. Introduction

    This article explores the current status of those international students who have chosen to study abroad and who include Work-integrated Learning (WIL) in Western Australian (WA) universities. The focus is on exploring barriers which may inhibit their participation in WIL. WILd encompasses 'a range of approaches and strategies that integrate theory with the practice of work within a purposefully designed curriculum' (Patrick et al. 2009, p. iv). In higher education, this includes a wealth of activities such as industry-based projects, placements, internships, and service learning. The purpose of WIL is to provide students with an insight into the realities of professional practice and to encourage them to apply their non-technical and technical skills in a work context. Its importance is recognised globally and it forms an important element of a suite of offerings, including career-management provision, employability skill-development, and the cultivation of life skills and civic responsibility, which are designed to enhance graduate employability (Gribble 2014).

    The importance of WIL for enhancing productivity, graduate work-readiness, and strengthening partnerships between industry and universities is reinforced with the recent release of the National Strategy on WIL, which aims to 'develop a coherent approach to build workforce capability, skills and individual prospects' (Universities Australia et al. 2015, p. 1). The strategy is committed to identifying and supporting initiatives in WIL, including increasing the opportunities for international students to participate. The recently released Draft National Strategy on International Education (DET 2015, p. 42) acknowledges Australia's need to'expand the potential, scale and breadth of relevant WIL opportunities for international students and graduates'. International education is Australia's fourth-largest export industry and is worth more than $150 billion per annum (Universities Australia 2014). Amid a backdrop of global mobility, the international education market is fiercely competitive with developed economies concentrating their efforts on differentiating their offerings to attract students and preserve this important flow of revenue. It is critical that Australia upholds its competitive advantage through innovative and high-quality offerings, particularly given endemic barriers such as the nation's stringent visa regulations and its high cost of living.

    International students seek to gain work experience in their host country as part of their foreign studies in order to enhance their employability and chances of job attainment upon graduation (IEAA 2012), particularly in the case of Chinese students (Sharma 2014). Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that international-student participation in WIL is lower than for domestic students (Gribble 2014). It is a matter of considerable angst among international students (see IEAA 2012). While universities and employers are rightfully intent on placing diligent and capable students in WIL opportunities, those from diverse backgrounds often fail to find a placement. Evidence suggests that this may be attributed to employer perceptions of poor language capabilities, cultural issues, and resource pressures due to the need for additional preparation and mentoring requirements for the students (IEAA 2012). Other barriers to international students successfully securing work experience in Australia include limited access to networks, poor labour market awareness, visa restrictions, and relatively weak communication skills (Blackmore et al. 2014; IEAA 2012). Further, locating suitable placements for international students is increasingly difficult for poorly resourced WIL coordinators in Australian universities (Blackmore et al. 2012).

    The lack of WIL opportunities for international students is detrimental for a number of reasons. Equity, inclusivity, and widening participation are critical to WIL initiatives, policies, and practices. This makes the recent drive for increased WIL offerings important to all students, not just domestic ones. Second, maintaining and strengthening current links with international markets--particularly China and other South East Asian countries--are critical to the wellbeing and future of the Australian economy. Engaging international students in WIL may assist those employers who are conducting or who intend to conduct business in foreign markets, and it provides access to a valuable resource in the form of linguistic expertise and knowledge of local culture and working practices. Leveraging on these often unique knowledge and skills allows industry to overcome cultural and communication barriers and to strengthen partnerships to assist national competitiveness. Failure to capitalise on the potential strengths of a multicultural and diverse labour force may have an impact on productivity, innovation, and enterprise, and also on international competitiveness due to the absence of cultural insight and global connections.

    This article aims to develop an understanding of how international students are participating in WIL, the barriers which are hindering their participation, and the reasons for such barriers. The intended outcome is to identify stakeholder strategies to increase international-student exposure to WIL, thus enhancing their employability and making Australia their preferred study destination, while enabling Australia to realise the economic benefits from hosting and employing international students. The research objectives are, therefore, to summarise the current WIL offerings for international students in WA universities; to gauge international-student participation rates in WIL activities; to capture stakeholder perceptions of the barriers to engaging international students in WIL activities; and to identify stakeholder strategies for increasing the number of international students participating in WIL in Australia.

    These objectives are achieved through gathering data from stakeholders involved in the areas of business or commerce, IT, and engineering in WA universities. As noted by Blackmore et al. (2014, p. 31), 'research into participation rates of international students in a range of disciplines, the barriers to participation, and strategies for enhancing overall participation rates among the international student cohort is required'. This article extends our understanding of such areas within a WA context.

  2. Background

    International students and the demand for work experience

    The employment rate for new graduates continues to fall to record low levels (GCA 2014) and, unfortunately, the short-term outlook does not appear to be much brighter (see Jander 2014). Some evidence suggests that although graduate employment has reportedly returned to pre-GFC levels, widening participation policies means an oversupply of talent and a soft graduate labour market (AUIDF 2013). The employment of international students in full-time graduate-level positions in Australia is low, relative to their domestic counterparts (AUIDF 2013). With underemployment also a problem for new graduates (GCA 2012), students are seeking ways to enhance their portfolio of skills and experiences during their university years. An important part of making themselves more attractive to prospective employers is gaining work experience relevant to their discipline. Integrating WIL opportunities into undergraduate education enhances students' ability to apply disciplinary and non-technical skills and knowledge, and makes for a smoother transition from university to the professional environment (AWPA 2013; Wilton 2012). Students participating in WIL are reported to experience better employment outcomes and to command a salary premium (AWPA 2014; Sattler and Peters 2012). IEAA (2012) highlights the need for increased opportunities in the higher-education sector to enable international students to gain relevant work experience and establish local networks. The argument is that 'providing international students with exposure to the Australian workplace via internships and other WIL programs will not only improve the employability of graduates but is likely to enhance the value of an Australian degree' (Blackmore et al. 2014). Increasing WIL opportunities for international students would enable Australian universities to position themselves better in the global education market.

    Stakeholder benefits of WIL among international students

    Those employing international graduates have evidenced a very strong work ethic, persistence, and high levels of intelligence among their recruits (AUIDF 2013; Blackmore et al. 2014); it is likely these advantages may translate into...

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