Reflections on International Students and Graduate Employability from Delhi, India
I am currently in Delhi, India. It is monsoon season (July) which means that the gardens are lush and green and the air is what English-speaking locals call sticky hot. I have been invited here by the Australian High Commission in India in a project envisioned and led by Professor James Arvanitakis, Dean – Graduate Research School, Western Sydney University and 2012 Australian Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year.
I am part of a team of Australian higher education researchers who are in India to collaborate with a team of Indian colleagues. My Indian scholar partner and I are specifically looking at the challenges and solutions regarding Indian university graduates commencing careers after completing their degrees abroad.
I am particularly interested in the dissonance between how students navigate their student experience, how graduates present that experience to employers, how western educators teach international students and employer satisfaction with the applying graduates (in India and in Australia).
I would like to share four conversations with you and the questions and reflections each provoked.
1. Melbourne taxi driver
The first conversation took place before I boarded the plane for India. My taxi driver and I had long chats as he drove me multiple times to various research engagements while I was in Melbourne. As he became comfortable with me, he asked if it was okay if he answered his mobile (using hands-free of course).
The calls were from seniors and their support systems, arranging and rearranging regular trips. The tone of these calls clearly established that my taxi driver provided an essential and highly-valued community service and that he was held in high-esteem. I asked him about his story. More than fifteen years prior, he had completed his Bachelor of Accounting in India and was recruited to complete his Masters of Accounting in Melbourne.
He successfully completed his degree and was denied an Australian residence visa. He liked living in Melbourne and decided to extend his stay to pursue his accounting career. He started driving taxi thereby allowing him to stay in Australia and cover living expenses. Over the years, he tried a number of times for a visa without success. He met the woman who is now his wife and together they had a child. This means that he now happily has dependents.
I asked him whether his goal was still to pursue a career in accounting. He was not sure because this would mean that he would probably have to redo his degree (which was now 15 years out of date). He was very likely to earn less money and have less status (in an entry-level accounting position). I asked him (guessing at the answer) whether his story was unique. He replied ‘no, not at all’ and we made initial arrangements for me (upon my return to Melbourne) to hold a large focus group of his taxi driver colleagues – all of whom have university degrees.
Reflective questions – How do we begin to address this wicked problem of graduate employability of international students?
2. Indian graduates at Australian career fairs
As part of my team’s research into graduate employability, I had a booth at a number of university graduate career fairs in various locations throughout Australia. Multiple times on each of these occasions I was approached by disgruntled university graduates from India. Their stories were depressingly themed –
‘I was sold a bag of worthless goods by both the visa agent and the university. They led me to believe that if I did my university degree in Australia, I would have a good job after graduation. They said that they would provide that job. My family sacrificed everything for me to do my degree and now I am unemployed and cannot pay them back.’
Many of these graduates described seeking employment in both India and Australia without success in either country. They were from multiple disciplines, in both generalist and professional degrees.
3. Hotel lift attendant
I am staying at a spectacularly beautiful hotel. Musicians play a baby grand in the lobby. There is an attendant in the toilets who asks whether I would like hand lotion. The restaurant hostess tries to save me a table by the window and brings my coffee just the way I like it without me saying a word. The lift attendant presses my floor without me reminding him and even though it makes it feel like it is only my floor he remembers, I am certain he does this for every guest.
This is all very confronting and unsettling for me. I feel guilty that I am enjoying being princessed. I come from a social justice background, supporting people with disabling conditions and facing entrenched stigma and hegemonies. I deeply care about inequities and human kindness.
I persisted with finding a way to go beyond the posh hotel circuit and approved pathways to Old Delhi. The reality is very different here. I saw many families including with small babies and toddlers who lived in make-shift accommodation beside busy streets with honking motorcycles, rickshaws and some cars. Some of the families seem to live entirely under the stars and others had a tarp overhead (keeping in mind that it is the rainy season).
Naturally, what I began to ask myself is whether graduate employability (considering the relative privileging of those who are able to go to university) is the moral question to be asking given this much bigger issue. You can bet that I have asked many people this question while here in Delhi. Two of the responses compel me. First, I was told that many of the people living on the street had moved there from the villages for a “better life” and had better living conditions than they would otherwise have had.
The second compelling response is an economic argument. It is estimated that only 5% of working Indians have salaried jobs (e.g. teachers, doctors, lawyers …) and thus pay taxes. The other 95% operate small shops, drive tuktuks or rickshaws … Tax-paying university graduates are a possible solution to the country’s economic problems, as the taxes can then be used to provide more social services.
However, in an endless Mobius strip, if there are few available graduate positions in India, then how is the economy built by taxpayers, and if the economy is not grown, how will more positions eventuate?
Returning to the title of this section of the blog, I stop and chat with the friendly lift attendant whenever he is not too busy. I discovered that he will finally have two days off in a row, meaning that he will be able to make the long journey back to his village to see his four year-old son. I (mostly) do not like being served. I can push the lift button myself.
I do not like that the lift attendant was born into a position that he and his son can never expect to go to university. However, his employment at the hotel means that he can support his family and he says that he likes his job. Who am I to judge? What is a reasonable (and desirable) target in regards to the percentage of a working population who are university educated?
4. Dear parents of Indian university students …
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Sarah Richardon who is the Research Director at ACER India (Australian Council for Educational Research). Sarah is now living and working in Delhi after dedicating years of research and thought to such issues as graduate employability of international students.
Sarah does not live in an ex-pat compound. Her colleagues and friends are mostly Indian. I will soon be dedicating a full blog to pursuing more strands of our conversation. However, for now, one of the themes that most compelled me was as follows –
Indian parents take great pride in their sons and daughters achieving the highest distinctions in their university courses. Overall, when Indian parents have invested in sending their sons and daughters overseas for a degree, they do not want to hear about time spent in clubs, societies or even volunteer work or sport.
Indian parents tend to believe that working a part-time job while studying is not in their sons’ and daughters’ best interests and will interfere with their studies – it is particularly distasteful to work in a service industry such as fast food, where the most part time overseas vacancies are found.
The problem is that employers expect their new recruits to be well-rounded. The graduates who are getting hired are able to give examples of ways that they have developed their communication skills, and that they are motivated individuals who can lead the organisation forward. Employers are increasingly distrusting transcripts with straight High Distinctions.
Employers say that in order to achieve these kind of grades, students will have probably had to spend all of their time studying. They would have therefore missed out on worthwhile extra-curricular opportunities to develop their soft skills.
For Indian students who largely speak Hindi at home, this experience is particularly relevant, because spending time with English-speaking peers may help develop their communication skills, which are increasingly important for getting and keeping jobs.
One employer expressed this perspective in a particularly eloquent manner –
‘I look for a resume that almost looks like they’ve been working for four years in addition to studying. They’ve been working part-time, volunteering or doing community work. I like to find people that look like they’ve been busy and have a full life, that they’re doing lots of things apart from just studying and sitting in their room.’
In other words, Australian educators need to help Indian students convince their parents of the following message.
Dear Father and Mother
You sent me to university in Australia to get a good job after graduation. In order to be employable, I need to be well-rounded, which means that I need to participate in extra-curricular activity beyond my studies. I need to join clubs, participate in social activities, join a team, do volunteer work and/or get a part-time job. This is not fooling around, wasting time or wasting your money, but making sure that employers want to hire me after I graduate from university.
It has been a journey of awakening spending time and thought in Delhi. Dr Richardson calls this cosmopolitan thinking, or in other words, a world citizen perspective of openness. We need to be socially, culturally and morally open to the contexts, challenges and solutions in order to address the wicked problem of graduate employability of international students.