In a changing global scenario, Third World countries are accelerating efforts to achieve recognizable success in the field of education. Pakistan has also taken measures to this effect. These efforts, though laudable, are debated by some academics as non-sustainable and thus non-productive. Notwithstanding these objections, over 2,000 students have been able to avail scholarships advertised by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). These scholarships in the field of science and technology are expected to bring expertise to the country and set it on the path of progress. The experience also aims to give individuals a global perspective, hence contributing towards the making of ‘global’ citizens. On the economic and employment front, it offers a great advantage to graduates of prestigious international universities in gaining employment within the country and abroad. In the job market, preference is given to fresh graduates!
This fact was highlighted when a respected teacher and faculty member of the Punjab University visited the student advising office at the US Consulate Lahore to inquire about Graduate Degree Programs in the US for his son. He explained that despite the fact that his son had a record of outstanding academic credentials, he lost out to foreign, especially US educated candidates, in the job market. Unfortunate though the situation may appear for the local graduates, it is a fact that the international education experience, especially at renowned educational institutions, does often give an advantage to students who are applying for jobs.
This understanding has led to an increase in study abroad plans in almost all countries, especially in those countries where the local education industry is still evolving. UNESCO records a 56 percent increase in international student enrollment from 1999-2004. Six countries host 69 percent of the world’s mobile students. They are: USA (22 percent); UK 14 percent; Germany 10 percent; France 10 percent; Australia seven percent and China five percent (UNESCO, and Open Doors 2006). Currently there are 2.5 million international students worldwide and according to forecasts there will be 7.2 million international students (worldwide) in 2025 (Boehm, Davis, Meares and Pearce, 2002).
What is important here is to understand the reasons for this increased demand, apart from the fact that it is perceived as a key to better employability. The American Council on Education enumerates the following factors which have led to an increase in ‘internationally mobile students,’ a term coined by UNESCO:
Projected growth in household wealth
Increased demand for higher education
Lack of capacity in some countries to meet this demand
Growing interest in studying overseas
(Boehm, Davis, Meares and Pearce, 2002).
The last factor enumerated above can be better explored when seen in the context of the changing global scenario. It is no longer a world where countries or economies function in semi-isolation. Today’s world is an interdependent and fiercely competitive entity; multinationals are erasing geographical boundaries in the context of business/industrial investment and opportunities. To be able to compete successfully, they look for local human resources in countries where they are investing. These employers have the advantage of selecting the best and the brightest because of attractive employment benefits. One endearing element in candidate selection seems to be the ‘study abroad’ experience. Notwithstanding the academic value of a ‘foreign’ degree, what really attracts the employer is the ‘global experience’. This experience or exposure in the case of international students provides an opportunity to interact with teachers and students from different countries, stimulates learning and allows insights into different points of view. It also helps in creating an international network of contacts.
By way of example it is interesting to note some similarities between experiences looked forward to by Freshmen at four-year colleges in the US (Chronicle of Higher Education August ’05) and employers rating of the importance of candidates qualities/skills (10 Things employers want you to learn in college, Bill Coplin, Ten Speed Press, 2003). Among the 13 objectives listed by students, five in the top bracket deal with communication and interaction with people of diverse racial or cultural backgrounds. In the rating provided by employers the majority of the desired qualities involve communication and interpersonal skills. On a five-point scale the top four most important skills rated by employers are:
It is interesting to note that the Grade Point Average (GPA) gets a rating of 3.68 in comparison! This is not to undermine the importance of the GPA since it is an indicator of skills and reveals how good the student is at “figuring out what the professors want and then delivering the goods” (Bill Coplin”).
What stands out is the significance of and focus on communication or interpersonal skills; these are the qualities that an international learning environment provides and these are skills that employers and big businesses are looking for. Because of the diverse multicultural environment in colleges and universities in the US and because the US is host to the largest international student population worldwide. American colleges and universities provide the most conducive environment for acquiring effective people-dealing skills, this is why “over 565,000 international students are enrolled in the US Higher Education – more than twice as many as any other leading host” (American Council on Education).