International students set up for failure before they even enter the UK job market

Why Umanga, a student from Qatar, was told she needs to be ‘exceptional’ to get a job… 

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When Umanga Perera’s graduation was looming, depressed and terrified of failing to get a job, she applied for a ‘panic-Master’. Brought up in Qatar where local censorship thrives and citizenship is not given easily even to those born there, the 22-year-old journalism student from University of Sheffield, could not see herself getting any job in her home country that would appease her investigative instincts. 

Fast forward a year, now a Masters student in International Public and Political Communications (IPPC), and determined to do everything by the book to secure a job after graduation, she visited the Careers Service desk to get some guidance. Unfortunately, she was not met with any encouraging speeches.

“They said ‘well, we don’t know much about visas but we can tell you it’s really hard for you to get a job and we haven’t heard of anyone from journalism getting employed as an international student’,” said Umanga. “I was bombarded with stats to the point where I just broke down in tears.”

This is a reality for many international students. According to Universities UK International, in 2019 over 73 per cent of graduates coming from overseas countries – namely China, India, Malaysia, and Nigeria – returned back to their home country for work after graduating. This bears the question of whether that was their original plan or if the unfavourable conditions in the UK job market and the lack of support by universities are to blame. Unfortunately, Umanga quickly found out it was more the latter than the former.

England has more opportunities – yet, as Home and EU students explore the country and start testing the waters of the job market, international students struggle to secure work experience, let alone a graduate job.

Following the strikes at the beginning of 2020, the Faculty of Social Sciences agreed to organise weekly career webinars for IPPC and Global Journalism MA students as a way of compensation; a group of people which, according to Umanga, was mostly comprised of international students eagerly awaiting some advice to help them navigate today’s job market. Instead, dreams and plans seemed to crumble in a matter of minutes as they were told they had to be ‘exceptional’ to even set a foot in, as only 2 per cent of last year’s international students had managed to find a job in the UK. 

“They just said you have to be realistic about your prospects and be ‘exceptional’,” she told me. “It was very disheartening. Your audience is 90% international students, how can you do that? How can you just shut a door in their face?”

While this took place in pre-COVID times, nearing the end of university is always a very precarious period where mental health is fragile and existential crises abound. The goal behind that speech could have been motivational as, in journalism, pep talks tend to come in the form of ‘most of you will probably not secure a good job after university’– an introductory speech given to me in a seminar as a first year journalism student – in reality it probably only contributed to many discouraged students and a number of mental breakdowns. 

Yes, our profession is known to demand a good layer of thick skin but career webinars and universities are meant to arm you with the necessities to break into the industry of your choice. ‘Realism’, while a necessary evil, never helped any of the world’s current leading figures, businessmen, innovators and influencers to climb the ladder and secure their place in a world full of people trying to do the same.

Yet being ‘exceptional’ seems to be an unwritten requirement for many international students,as any employer that decides to offer them a position in their company will also have to become a sponsor for their visa – something they are not often happy to do. Unfortunately, this also gets in the way of work experience. In fact, Namitha Shree Ragunath, 21, a third-year journalism student from Malaysia, was turned down by three companies in one week because of her visa.

“Every summer and every spring I sign up for internships and jobs and a very common factor would be that they ask you for your visa,” she tells me. “Companies don’t want to [sponsor a visa] because they want to save cost and obviously it gets in the way of my work because people won’t hire me.”

In another occasion, Namitha had been personally contacted by an employer and had a very successful interview being told she was ‘perfect for the job’ only to ultimately be turned down when mentioning she is an international student. “I realised that the only reason I wasn’t fit [for the job] was because they would rather hire a local student. I’m not saying they’re not qualified but they would rather give it to a less qualified local student than a qualified international student.”

Namitha and Umanga represent the reality of many international students. Many come to England from all corners of the world not only due to the appealing universities but in pursuit of a better life and of opportunities that will help them excel in their field of interest. For some, their families had to save up for years to secure that chance only for their kids to face a system that brings more obstacles than opportunities. 

In 2019, University of Sheffield had over 9000 international students walking its campus, yet Umanga was met with half-hearted shrugs and regretful stares when asking Career Services for information regarding work and visa. 

“They send you to the next person and the next person and I just want there to be training about that. I want them to help us understand the jargon and get employers to host talks and say ‘Okay, as an international student who wants to break into this industry this is how you do it’. 

“What’s the point of having a degree if you have to be Albert Einstein in order to get a job as a journalist.”

Months later, the word ‘exceptional’ still comes out of her lips laced with bitterness. It is an impossible expectation, one that seems tailored to make someone fail before they even begin. Universities are supposed to prepare students for their future careers and, while warnings and a dose of reality are necessary, shouldn’t they come hand to hand with a list of resources and support? Because 2 per cent might be the status quo, but aren’t we trying to change it? 

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