Many UK universities have underscored the significance of employability by incorporating it as a strategic priority within their learning and teaching frameworks.

Nevertheless, a conspicuous gap persists in our understanding of international employability, particularly concerning those students who intend to return to their respective home countries upon completing their studies.

Our previous research findings indicate that a majority of Chinese international students intend to return to China after graduation. However, they often report feeling ill-prepared for the job-seeking process, both in terms of developing essential employability skills during their time in the UK and navigating the nuances of timing and knowledge relevant to their home country’s job market requirements.

During the 2022/23 academic year, we undertook a new study of Chinese students’ experiences, supported by Jisc Careers Research Grant.

Our primary objective was to investigate the perspectives of both Chinese alumni and Chinese employers regarding the impact of studying in the UK on the employability of students returning to their country.

This in-depth research comprised 36 interviews, consisting of 20 with Chinese graduates who had studied in the UK and 16 with Chinese employers spanning various professional sectors.

Our research suggests that both Chinese alumni and employers value the study abroad experience.

In particular, in nine distinct areas, both employers and alumni agreed that studying in the UK significantly enhanced these attributes and that they contributed to employability:

  • Initiative
  • Communication and team working
  • English language proficiency
  • Time management
  • Problem-solving and analytical skills
  • Adaptability
  • Inclusivity
  • Research skills and information seeking
  • Global perspective

However, there was less consensus between alumni and employers on other skills, such as:

  • Critical thinking: UK alumni were less convinced of its value compared to employers.
  • Communicating with management: employers believed that alumni lacked proficiency in communicating upward to their managers.
  • Subject knowledge: UK alumni believed that they excelled in this area, while employers perceived their knowledge as overly theoretical.
  • Persistence: graduates felt confident in this aspect, but employers had reservations.
  • Customer service: alumni considered this necessary only for specific roles, but employers deemed it important across all positions.

In addition, four areas were identified as important but inadequately developed in UK education, namely: professional image management; social networking skills; digital skills; and Chinese language skills.

For example, students were encouraged to exclusively think, speak, and write in English when discussing the subject matter they were taught. However, upon returning to their home countries and entering non-English speaking work environments, they encountered challenges in effectively expressing their knowledge in Chinese.

Our research had several other key findings. Employers prioritised university ranking, degree qualifications and study duration, in evaluating candidates. Single year masters were often considered less valuable than longer term study.

Employers also thought that returning students often had inflated salary expectations, as they sought to recoup their study costs and had unrealistic job market expectations due to limited awareness of the Chinese job market.

“Tier 1 cities face graduate oversupply, while lower Tier cities face a shortage of overseas graduates”

While internships were valued for employability, visa restrictions and short study periods limited opportunities in this respect. Alumni also viewed relocating to Tier 1 cities as one of the advantages of studying abroad, but these cities face graduate oversupply, while lower Tier cities face a shortage of overseas graduates.

Our interviews identified a variety of recruitment channels in use, with personal recommendation trusted most by alumni.

University career services were valuable but under-utilised, as students perceived them as too geared toward UK jobs rather than positions in China.

During initial job searches, alumni felt disadvantaged as employers preferred face-to-face recruitment, but they were still studying their course in the UK at peak recruitment times.

Based on our findings, we recommend UK universities to offer clear guidance on how career services function, emphasising their relevance to the Chinese job market.

Additionally they should facilitate offline connections for international students through Chinese recruitment fairs and involve industry partners.

Workshops can be conducted to enhance skills identified as important by Chinese employers but less developed in UK study.

You can read the research in full on Prospects Luminate. And find more information on the Jisc Careers Research Grant.

About the authors: Xin Zhao, University Teacher at the University of Sheffield, and Andrew Cox, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield.