Linking Student Mobility With Employability: Barriers And Possibilities

Linking Student Mobility With Employability: Barriers And Possibilities

From a report on a cross-sector student mobility roundtable, released March 26 by The Japan Foundation, Sydney.

University students today are encouraged by both government and universities to incorporate overseas learning experiences into their degrees with the aim of improving employment chances. However, a report by The Japan Foundation, Sydney indicates that the links between student mobility and employability are not as clear-cut as they seem.

The report, titled Asia-Informed Student Mobility in the Indo-Pacific Era: Case Studies on Japan, presents an analysis of a cross-sector roundtable discussion on international education experiences that was held at the Asian Studies Association of Australia Conference in July last year. Japan is one of the most popular destinations for New Colombo Plan scholars, and the report focusses on case studies of student mobility between Japan and Australia, highlighting their relevance for mobility between Australia and its regional neighbours more broadly.

The discussion indicated that while government, universities and students themselves perceive value in student mobility experiences, these perceptions may not be shared by employers. Among its recommendations, the report calls for increased cross-sector collaboration at a national level to boost recognition of student mobility’s value among employers and increase opportunities for returnee students.


With the New Colombo Plan in its fifth year, recent figures show that nearly one in four graduates now embark on international study programs during their degrees. Roundtable speaker Stephanie Newman, New Colombo Plan alumna and graduate of The University of Technology Sydney, tells why: “International exposure was a priority for me. From government to university level and even at my high school, there’s been an ongoing message of ‘internationalise yourself, internationalise your degree, make yourself more valuable.’”

Fellow roundtable speaker and New Colombo Plan alumnus Patrick Gan, a graduate of Western Sydney University, says that similar perceptions of value drove his mobility experience: “I knew from the end of high school that I wanted to go on exchange. I was influenced by stories from friends who had gone abroad and the regrets of those who hadn’t.”

Professor Kent Anderson is a member of the Ministerial Council for International Education, where he acts as advisor to the government on the New Colombo Plan. Also a roundtable speaker, he understands why increasing numbers of students seek out mobility experiences. “The case for its importance for universities, government and business is rock-solid,” he says.


Professor Anderson also notes that recognition of this importance is lagging among employers, and that this points in part to structural barriers as well as perceptual barriers. “I was having lunch with the CEO of one of Australia’s top 10 listed companies, and I asked, ‘In job interviews, does your company ask whether applicants have studied overseas?’

“I was hoping that they at least asked that question. But the answer was, ‘I’ve got no idea. My HR department is a bunch of people of one demographic slice who see their job as replicating themselves. For this company to succeed in future we need to completely change who’s in it, but what they’re good at is reproducing the past.’”

Patrick Gan experienced these barriers first-hand after returning to Australia from overseas study. While job-seeking, he was surprised at potential employers’ lack of interest in his mobility experience. “In job interviews, no-one really asks if you’ve done exchange,” he says.

Gan spent 23 months in Japan as a New Colombo Plan scholar, learning the language, completing university courses in Japanese and interning for three top-tier organisations, including the Australian Embassy in Tokyo and National Australia Bank’s Japan office. Upon returning to Australia, he was keen to use his international experience effectively, but found employers to be less enthusiastic. “One of my former managers said, ‘Exchange? What can you really do with it? Isn’t it just a bunch of students going overseas to party?’ It leaves you very isolated, and you come back wondering, ‘does anyone really value what I did?’”


Jason Hayes is Japan Practice Leader at PwC Australia, and his extensive international experience in corporate strategy makes him well-positioned to weigh in on debate around the value of student mobility from an employer’s perspective. He says that organisations that fail to value overseas experience, and particularly Asia-engaged students, have a lot to lose. “By 2030, four of the world’s five largest economies will be in Asia—namely, China, Japan, India and Indonesia.

“Even so, Australia has very little investment in Asia and our cultural understanding of Asia is lacking. Corporate Australia needs to be much better about recognising the achievement of Australians who have worked in Asia, rather than penalising candidates when it comes to the recruitment process.”

With corporate internationalisation consulting as one of its core strengths, PwC has itself embraced the possibilities offered by the New Colombo Plan, becoming a sponsor of the program and hosting New Colombo Plan scholars at its offices in Japan and Singapore.


In addition to encouraging local employers to take advantage of students’ growing enthusiasm for international learning experiences, Hayes also notes more could be done to assist returnee students’ understanding of how their international skills might be relevant in the workforce. “Students often struggle to explain to employers how their mobility experience can help the organisation,” he says. “Students need to articulate the value of their international experience to employers, otherwise it’s not sold to us.”

Hayes is not alone. Dr Rowena Ward, a roundtable attendee from The University of Wollongong observes, “Students need to be able to articulate what they’re getting out of mobility experiences, beyond just ‘it was a good time’. And I think we need to be looking at this at a government-university level, not just at the individual university level.”

Dr Jeremy Breaden from Monash University, whose expertise centres on higher education policy, concurs. Speaking on mobility programs in general, he notes: “We need to recognise that the student mobility experience continues after exchange when they’re trying to make sense of their experience, particularly regarding employability. There is a tendency to assume that exchange itself will be the definitive experience, so there is little organised follow-through. [But] we need to look at the whole continuum, and funding and scaffolding are needed for that to happen.”


Edith Cowan University in Perth is one institution that has been working on scaffolding the sense-making process for returnee students. ECU is home to the largest outbound mobility program in Australia, which it runs in partnership with Tokyo City University in Japan. Called the Tokyo City University Australia Program (TAP), the initiative is also the largest mobility program between Australia and Japan in terms of student numbers. Roundtable speaker Associate Professor Helen Vella Bonavita, Dean of International Relations at ECU and head of the program, says that workshops for returnee students are an integral part of TAP’s structure: “Working at the individual and institutional level is important: showing students how to sell their CVs, and why mobility differentiates them from the crowd.”

According to Stephanie Newman, The University of Technology Sydney is also making inroads in this area. UTS guides the sense-making experience for mobility students via a program that “teaches students how to sell international experience to employers.” The program focusses on helping returnees to identify new capabilities they have earned through international experience, and understand their value when applied in practical workplace situations. Says Newman, “I’ve done it twice because it’s so good, and when I’ve shared the material with students from other universities, they’ve said ‘I really wish my university offered that.’”

For other universities seeking to support returnee mobility students in a similar way, Jason Hayes suggests that collaboration with employers may be a way forward. “How could we give you the script to talk to an Australian bank or professional services firm and show how your Asia-related skills and experience are relevant? We don’t actually have that conversation, but we should.”


Universities acknowledge that they still have work to do in understanding how best to maximise the effectiveness of mobility experiences for students. Local employers, meanwhile, are struggling to catch up with the implications and advantages that this growing phenomenon offers for business. So where can talented, driven returnees look to put their skills, experience and enthusiasm for international and intercultural engagement to use? Jason Hayes suggests returning to the roots of the mobility experience and adopting an international approach. “Most Australians, even if they do go and study abroad, are ultimately seeking jobs back in Australia—often with Australian companies. The mindset needs to be, ‘my employment is in a global market, beyond Australia’s borders.’”

The report, Asia-Informed Student Mobility in the Indo-Pacific Era: Case Studies on Japan, is published by The Japan Foundation, Sydney. Audio from the discussion is also available on the website.

Elicia O'Reilly - Public Programs, Communications & Engagement for The Japan Foundation, and Series Editor, New Voices in Japanese Studies.

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