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Deepening industry engagement with international students through work-integrated learning.

Abstract

This study canvasses employer, academic, and student perspectives on the barriers experienced by international students in gaining exposure to the Western Australian workplace through Work-integrated Learning (WIL). It explores international-student participation in work placements--one example of WIL offerings--as part of their university studies. WIL is highly regarded by international students who seek to gain local experience to improve their employment prospects; it is a key consideration for study destination. WIL also holds significant benefits for industry. These potential benefits include gaining cultural insight, linguistic expertise and, potentially, deepening existing collaborative global partnerships through the placement of participating international students. Findings indicate that a relatively low proportion of international students participate in WIL compared with domestic students. Implications of employer reluctance to engage with international students extend beyond individual employability and may affect international education's status as one of Australia's largest export industries. Stakeholder strategies to alleviate barriers to international students participating in WIL are discussed.

1. Introduction

This article explores the current status of those international students who have chosen to study abroad and who include Work-integrated Learning (WIL) in Western Australian (WA) universities. The focus is on exploring barriers which may inhibit their participation in WIL. WILd encompasses 'a range of approaches and strategies that integrate theory with the practice of work within a purposefully designed curriculum' (Patrick et al. 2009, p. iv). In higher education, this includes a wealth of activities such as industry-based projects, placements, internships, and service learning. The purpose of WIL is to provide students with an insight into the realities of professional practice and to encourage them to apply their non-technical and technical skills in a work context. Its importance is recognised globally and it forms an important element of a suite of offerings, including career-management provision, employability skill-development, and the cultivation of life skills and civic responsibility, which are designed to enhance graduate employability (Gribble 2014).

The importance of WIL for enhancing productivity, graduate work-readiness, and strengthening partnerships between industry and universities is reinforced with the recent release of the National Strategy on WIL, which aims to 'develop a coherent approach to build workforce capability, skills and individual prospects' (Universities Australia et al. 2015, p. 1). The strategy is committed to identifying and supporting initiatives in WIL, including increasing the opportunities for international students to participate. The recently released Draft National Strategy on International Education (DET 2015, p. 42) acknowledges Australia's need to'expand the potential, scale and breadth of relevant WIL opportunities for international students and graduates'. International education is Australia's fourth-largest export industry and is worth more than $150 billion per annum (Universities Australia 2014). Amid a backdrop of global mobility, the international education market is fiercely competitive with developed economies concentrating their efforts on differentiating their offerings to attract students and preserve this important flow of revenue. It is critical that Australia upholds its competitive advantage through innovative and high-quality offerings, particularly given endemic barriers such as the nation's stringent visa regulations and its high cost of living.

International students seek to gain work experience in their host country as part of their foreign studies in order to enhance their employability and chances of job attainment upon graduation (IEAA 2012), particularly in the case of Chinese students (Sharma 2014). Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that international-student participation in WIL is lower than for domestic students (Gribble 2014). It is a matter of considerable angst among international students (see IEAA 2012). While universities and employers are rightfully intent on placing diligent and capable students in WIL opportunities, those from diverse backgrounds often fail to find a placement. Evidence suggests that this may be attributed to employer perceptions of poor language capabilities, cultural issues, and resource pressures due to the need for additional preparation and mentoring requirements for the students (IEAA 2012). Other barriers to international students successfully securing work experience in Australia include limited access to networks, poor labour market awareness, visa restrictions, and relatively weak communication skills (Blackmore et al. 2014; IEAA 2012). Further, locating suitable placements for international students is increasingly difficult for poorly resourced WIL coordinators in Australian universities (Blackmore et al. 2012).

The lack of WIL opportunities for international students is detrimental for a number of reasons. Equity, inclusivity, and widening participation are critical to WIL initiatives, policies, and practices. This makes the recent drive for increased WIL offerings important to all students, not just domestic ones. Second, maintaining and strengthening current links with international markets--particularly China and other South East Asian countries--are critical to the wellbeing and future of the Australian economy. Engaging international students in WIL may assist those employers who are conducting or who intend to conduct business in foreign markets, and it provides access to a valuable resource in the form of linguistic expertise and knowledge of local culture and working practices. Leveraging on these often unique knowledge and skills allows industry to overcome cultural and communication barriers and to strengthen partnerships to assist national competitiveness. Failure to capitalise on the potential strengths of a multicultural and diverse labour force may have an impact on productivity, innovation, and enterprise, and also on international competitiveness due to the absence of cultural insight and global connections.

This article aims to develop an understanding of how international students are participating in WIL, the barriers which are hindering their participation, and the reasons for such barriers. The intended outcome is to identify stakeholder strategies to increase international-student exposure to WIL, thus enhancing their employability and making Australia their preferred study destination, while enabling Australia to realise the economic benefits from hosting and employing international students. The research objectives are, therefore, to summarise the current WIL offerings for international students in WA universities; to gauge international-student participation rates in WIL activities; to capture stakeholder perceptions of the barriers to engaging international students in WIL activities; and to identify stakeholder strategies for increasing the number of international students participating in WIL in Australia.

These objectives are achieved through gathering data from stakeholders involved in the areas of business or commerce, IT, and engineering in WA universities. As noted by Blackmore et al. (2014, p. 31), 'research into participation rates of international students in a range of disciplines, the barriers to participation, and strategies for enhancing overall participation rates among the international student cohort is required'. This article extends our understanding of such areas within a WA context.

2. Background

International students and the demand for work experience

The employment rate for new graduates continues to fall to record low levels (GCA 2014) and, unfortunately, the short-term outlook does not appear to be much brighter (see Jander 2014). Some evidence suggests that although graduate employment has reportedly returned to pre-GFC levels, widening participation policies means an oversupply of talent and a soft graduate labour market (AUIDF 2013). The employment of international students in full-time graduate-level positions in Australia is low, relative to their domestic counterparts (AUIDF 2013). With underemployment also a problem for new graduates (GCA 2012), students are seeking ways to enhance their portfolio of skills and experiences during their university years. An important part of making themselves more attractive to prospective employers is gaining work experience relevant to their discipline. Integrating WIL opportunities into undergraduate education enhances students' ability to apply disciplinary and non-technical skills and knowledge, and makes for a smoother transition from university to the professional environment (AWPA 2013; Wilton 2012). Students participating in WIL are reported to experience better employment outcomes and to command a salary premium (AWPA 2014; Sattler and Peters 2012). IEAA (2012) highlights the need for increased opportunities in the higher-education sector to enable international students to gain relevant work experience and establish local networks. The argument is that 'providing international students with exposure to the Australian workplace via internships and other WIL programs will not only improve the employability of graduates but is likely to enhance the value of an Australian degree' (Blackmore et al. 2014). Increasing WIL opportunities for international students would enable Australian universities to position themselves better in the global education market.

Stakeholder benefits of WIL among international students

Those employing international graduates have evidenced a very strong work ethic, persistence, and high levels of intelligence among their recruits (AUIDF 2013; Blackmore et al. 2014); it is likely these advantages may translate into work placements. Further, international students can provide expertise in language and cultural expectations and habits, which may be important for developing and maintaining business with international partners. International students can, therefore, 'act as cultural bridges for global communication and foster transnational business networks'(IEAA 2012, p. 12), and encourage innovation through introducing different and new ways of thinking. For universities, engaging in WIL strengthens relationships with local industry, and provides students with different linguistic capabilities and exposure to a range of cultures, particularly those relevant to Australia's 'Asian-connected' communities (IEAA 2012). There are few staff dedicated specifically to managing employment outcomes among international students. WIL is therefore an even more valuable opportunity to network and to lead to a better understanding of the different pathways to achieving career success (AUIDF 2013).

Barriers to international-student participation in WIL

IEAA (2012, p. 24) argues that 'there is currently a reality gap that needs to be bridged between the promise of work related experiences of various kinds for international students'. Exposing international students to WIL can be problematic for a range of reasons. First, international students place significant emphasis on gaining graduate employment in large-tier and high-profile organisations (Blackmore et al. 2014); they have higher expectations regarding earning potential (AUIDF 2013). Such expectations are considered to have a negative impact on their success in the graduate labour market (UNESCO 2012). These high expectations may be translated into specific demands for a certain type of host for WIL opportunities, which may be problematic in a market where demand for WIL outstrips supply (Department of Industry 2014). The desired larger firms often operate their own WIL programs and more opportunities are available in small and medium enterprises and not-for-profit organisations that may be more open to explore bespoke university programs, and they have fewer visa regulations associated with their employment and work-experience arrangements (Blackmore et al. 2014). Interestingly, international students largely indicate an overall overconfidence in securing an internship or an industry placement and obtaining useful work experience (Lawrence 2014).

Certainly in the graduate employment market, industry appears to favour recruiting those of a similar background to the existing workforce (Blackmore et al. 2014). Australian workplaces appear to be failing to leverage diversity to engage with foreign clients more effectively (DCA 2014). Relatively poor graduate-employment outcomes among international students are attributed to concerns with language and a perceived lack of work experience (Lane 2014), cultural fit, increased administrative load, attrition, and poor non-technical skills due to a lack of extra-curricular activities (AUIDF 2013). Employers argue that their relatively low offering of WIL placements for international students is due to them already trying to meet the needs of an overwhelming number of domestic students seeking such opportunities (AUIDF 2013). Employers' reluctance to host international students has, however, been attributed to language deficiencies and a lack of understanding of the culture and common practices found in the Australian workplace (IEAA 2012; Smith et al. 2009). Further, the widely held belief that WIL provides a valuable 'try before you buy' opportunity to identify high-quality talent prior to graduation (Isherwood 2014; Wilson 2012) is not upheld for international students, amid concerns about their ability and their desire to remain in the country after their studies (Patrick et al. 2009).

International students often experience more difficulties than domestic students in sourcing local placements due to their lack of professional networks. This often leads to students undertaking core placements--such as in engineering--in their home country, which fails to provide valuable exposure to the context of the Australian workplace (Blackmore et al. 2014). This situation may be amplified by the lack of resources allocated to managing international students and their career-management needs in Australia, relative to other countries such as the United Kingdom (AUIDF 2013). Although there appears to be some collaboration between international offices and career services in Australian universities, this is less apparent than it is in the United Kingdom, which has a stronger tripartite relationship with the alumni function (AUIDF 2013). Combined with relatively poor resourcing in these service areas (AUIDF 2013), this is likely to have a negative impact on networking opportunities and employment outcomes for international students. Lower participation levels are also attributed to the additional costs incurred when WIL requires an extension to the degree program and to the international students not meeting the prescribed prerequisites for taking part (see Gribble 2014). Further aggravating the issue is that international students often do not pursue WIL opportunities, as they struggle to balance part-time work commitments, study, and daily life (Ongand Ramia 2009); they prioritise disciplinary studies over developing work readiness (AUIDF 2013).

Strategies for increasing WIL opportunities for international students

There has been debate on strategies which may enhance the participation of international students in WIL Clarifying the process of WIL--particularly surrounding legalities and visa regulations for international students--to raise the understanding of its precise meaning and the roles and responsibilities expected by all stakeholder groups may increase the success of WIL programs and employers' willingness to participate (see IEAA 2012). It may be beneficial to market the specific advantages to organisations of them hosting international students by using case studies and testimonials (Blackmore et al. 2012). An explanation of the formal options for global WIL programs where international students may complete WIL in their home country could be advantageous (IEAA 2012). It may encourage the accreditation of offshore WIL experiences--albeit for domestic students--and is an action point for the national WIL strategy (Universities Australia et al. 2015). Trade and professional organisations and local and national government advocacy of the WIL advantages of international students to local employers is also important (IEAA 2012). Also valuable is gaining the commitment of university campuses and local governments to host students on placement, as an effective means of increasing their participation (IEAA 2012).

3. Method

The research comprises four stages: (i) a desk audit of WIL offerings among WA universities, (ii) focus groups for academics involved in WIL, (iii) a survey of international students participating in WIL, and (iv) a survey of potential and active hosts of international-student work placements. This combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies produces a rich picture of stakeholder perceptions on WIL among international students.

Participants

For the purposes of this study, the exploration of international students in WIL is confined to the analysis and discussion of work placements. International students (N = 56) who completed a work placement between July 2014 and May 2015 in business, IT, or engineering in a particular WA university participated in the study. International students are those who do not have citizenship or permanent residence in Australia and who normally require a visa to undertake university study. Work placements in business and IT typically form an elective component of the degree program, whereas engineering is required for accreditation purposes. The three disciplines are, however, similar in the sense that they usually expose the student to a corporate setting. Students' background, study, and placement characteristics are presented in Table 1.

Academics (N = 15) across a range of disciplines in four of the five WA universities actively involved in WIL participated in the study. Employers based in Western Australia (N = 97) who could or currently do host international students on work placement--in business, engineering and (or) IT--took part. Their background and work characteristics are summarised in Table 2. Of these employers, 64 per cent had hosted a business, engineering, or IT student in the past, 50 per cent had not and 6 per cent were not sure if they had previously hosted. Of the 62 who had hosted students previously, 34 per cent had hosted an international student, 53 per cent had not, and 13 per cent were unsure. As organisations known to participate in WIL were targeted for the study, this may not represent a true cross-section of WA employers.

Procedures

Data were gathered from stakeholders between October 2014 and June 2015. Ninety-four students who had completed a work placement as part of their studies were invited to participate by direct email. Data were gathered on 78 students--a response rate of 83 percent; there were 56 complete and usable responses. Academic coordinators of placement programs in the areas of business and engineering across all five WA universities were contacted via email and (or) telephone between October and December 2014. Data were gathered on the management and structure of placement programs and the relative participation of international and domestic students. Other academics considered by Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) representatives to be active in WIL were invited to participate in the study by email and (or) phone. Organisations known to be participating in work placements or who had expressed an interest in doing so in the areas of business, IT, and engineering were emailed an invitation to participate in the study.

Measures

Two structured focus-group sessions with academics were used to gain their perspectives on the barriers inhibiting international students from completing work placements and on strategies to overcome these barriers. The sessions took place on different university campuses. The first comprised five academics--four WA ACEN university representatives and an additional WIL academic. The second included a WIL administrator and 10 WIL academics from different disciplines within the WA university from which the student sample was drawn. Written questions were used and a structured format was followed. For students and employers, the online surveys comprised open and closed questions on factors inhibiting international students from completing work placements and ways to overcome these problems.

Analysis

Survey responses were analysed using SPSS; individual responses to open questions were coded and analysed in Excel. Notes were written to record discussions in the smaller focus-group session, while an audio recording was made during the second, larger, session. All open responses were analysed in relation to the targeted objectives using thematic coding and analysis.

4. Results and Discussion

International-student participation in WIL

It was evident that data on work placements were not held centrally and required collation at a course level. This was apparent in a similar audit conducted in Victoria (IEAA 2012). Data were provided by the four publicly funded WA universities on placements in business and engineering. These highlighted the difficulties in gathering accurate data on student participation in WIL, thus echoing previous studies (IEAA 2012). Student participation in optional WIL-based units varied considerably among the four publicly funded WA universities. Generally, business schools were promoting the WIL agenda and offering placement or internship opportunities at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The majority comprised elective academic units, with participation ranging from a handful of students on placement each year to more than 200 students annually. Data indicated that international students are underrepresented, with a significantly lower proportion completing WIL compared with domestic students.

The desk audit indicated that none of the four publicly funded universities in Western Australia had different or specific arrangements in place for sourcing placements for international students in the areas of business or engineering. There was none or very little involvement by the international office, careers service, or alumni in organising placements for international students. Half of the universities commented that very occasionally the careers service or alumni would provide a lead to an organisation which may be interested in hosting a student. One student mentioned that students may consult these service centres on an individual basis if they wish. There was considerable variation among providers--in both disciplines--on where placements are permitted to take place. This ranged from restrictions to the Perth metropolitan area, interstate, and a small number allowing overseas placements. Results from the survey of international students indicated that 77 per cent (of 56 students) completed their placement in Australia, 21 per cent in their home country, and one student completed it elsewhere. Further, over half of the sample had their placements organised by the university.

The importance of WIL for international students

There was evidence suggesting a broad acknowledgement of the strategic importance of WIL across all four WA universities. One was funding a team to drive and implement WIL across the university, including the launch of two new units dedicated to WIL for international students. Another was in the process of developing centralised WIL resources, policy, and processes through its newly formed WIL Working Group. The focus on enhancing WIL for international students was not, however, a primary focus. Rather, the focus was on identifying good practice in managing and coordinating WIL and developing policy and resources to improve the quality of WIL delivery across the university, particularly during periods of economic downturn.

It was broadly acknowledged by academics, particularly those from business, that international students are keen to engage in work experience in Australia. This was not as apparent in engineering, perhaps being attributable to the discipline's relative lack of involvement in coordinating WIL activities compared to other areas. They therefore would have less exposure to the strength of student opinion. The role of work placements was confirmed by the students, with 70 percent of the sample strongly agreeing and 21 per cent agreeing that they were an important part of their overseas study experience. The availability of work placements appeared to influence students' choice of study destination, with 32 per cent strongly agreeing this helped them to decide where to study, and another 34 per cent agreeing it did have an impact on their decision. Only 18 per cent felt that work placement did not influence their study-location decision in any way. Almost 90 percent of the sample agreed that they were very excited and keen to participate in a work placement. There were no variations (based on Kruskal-Wallis tests at a significance level of 0.05) in students' ratings of the influence of placements on study destination, the importance of placements by continent, or on feelings of excitement about their placement.

Benefits of international student WIL to industry

Academics believed the following desirable attributes or skills were more apparent for international than for domestic students: dressing appropriately and behaving in a professional manner; effective time-management; diligence, commitment, and enthusiasm; multicultural awareness beyond that of Australian customs and norms and global mobility. Overall, academics noted that there were fewer behavioural issues arising among international students undertaking WIL. Academics from IT and business noted that students needed to be profiled and marketed to potential host employers on the basis of these attributes as opposed to, for example, observations from the education discipline, where compulsory placements are often organised by course type, stage of degree, and location. Academics felt that international students could bring certain benefits to potential host employers. These included cultural understanding of their home region, with many opening up market opportunities for host employers; language capabilities, which could facilitate interacting with clients in their own tongue; and high levels of motivation, due to the considerable investments they made to study in Australia.

In response to whether they offered any specific attributes or skills above and beyond domestic students on placement, several international students commented on the advantage of their linguistic capabilities where they could interact directly with international clients and staff. Further, multicultural awareness was considered a significant advantage and they were more experienced at handling scenarios in different cultural contexts. Many felt that they could draw on their disciplinary expertise and their practical knowledge from work experience in their own country, which may assist their host organisation in identifying new and innovative ways of working, or solutions to workplace issues. Some commented on their enhanced work ethic and diligence due to the need for them to prove themselves more than their domestic counterparts had to in the Australian workplace.

Of those employers who had some experience of hosting students (N = 62), almost half stated that linguistic expertise was of none or limited benefit, and only 28 per cent felt it would be some benefit to their organisation. These figures were almost mirrored for gaining knowledge of local culture in areas where their business is already, or where they could potentially be operating in the future. Unfortunately, this trend continued for the benefits of establishing business partnerships through overcoming cultural and (or) communication barriers and improved competitiveness due to enhanced global connections. When asked to rate the benefit of enhanced innovation and (or) productivity due to cultural and global insights, 33 per cent felt that this was of none or limited benefit, and 43 per cent did feel that this would benefit their organisation to some or to a significant degree. Of more benefit to the organisation was access to international students with high levels of drive, determination, and work ethic; 67 per cent believed this was of some or significant benefit to their firm; only 17 per cent perceived it to be of little benefit.

Barriers to expanding WIL opportunities for international students

Academics broadly attributed the difficulties experienced by international students in sourcing appropriate placements to their lack of established networks. This was supported by several students who felt it was difficult to compete with local students who were preferred by potential host employers and more engaged with them. Several employers agreed that if international students were as well-connected as their domestic counterparts, they would secure relatively more of the limited number of placement opportunities available.

Some academics, particularly in business, felt that expectations were often unrealistically high among international students. Many believed they should be assigned to large, high-profile organisations and they became fussier as they became aware of the different placement options available. Three-quarters of students did indicate that they wanted to complete their work placement in a large or mid-tier organisation, and they highlighted this as an area where universities should be providing more support. Fussiness among international students in relation to using public transport, travelling too far for placements, and undertaking work in a particular area were also noted by academic coordinators, and this was aligned with a feeling that--for some--as they were paying more, they expected more.

Academics found the absence of a local driving licence and (or) access to a car sometimes limited placement opportunities, particularly for firms based in industrial areas, which were not served by public transport. Students sometimes experienced difficulties in securing placements as they had returned home to visit family during the inter-semester break and were therefore unavailable for interviews with potential hosts for the forthcoming semester. They also noted some difficulty in gaining places on formal internship programs due to host employers only accepting applications from Australian permanent residents or citizens. Similarly, academics believed many employers used work placements as a means of identifying future talent, and this advantage was often not harnessed by international students, due to their concerns about post-graduation working-visa and residency restrictions.

Many academics experienced mild to moderate reluctance among employers on hosting international students. Concerns were often related to perceived weak oral and (or) written communication skills, which may affect discussions with clients and when writing emails or documents. There were also concerns for cultural differences where stereotypes may be perceived as posing problems to clients, customers, or existing employees. Many students felt that they were disadvantaged because English was their second language.

Employers who had hosted domestic students (N = 36) were asked to assign importance ratings to a range of reasons for not hosting international students. Table 3 suggests that employers were largely presented with domestic students for work-placement opportunities. The emergent message is that international students were not intentionally rejected due to their relatively weak communication skills, concerns for their status, or visa regulations. In fact, there was a very high percentage of 'strongly disagree' responses to such reasons. There does not appear, however, to be one clear reason for the lack of placements among international students, beyond the simple fact that a vacancy was not available at the time of assigning placements. Around 10 to 20 per cent of the sample do agree with reasons relating to individual peculiarities, international status, and citizenship, per se, communication skills, and prior experience. Some felt that there would be more work involved in hosting an international student, due to the need for additional preparation and explanation. The spread of reasons may, in combination, explain the underrepresentation of international students in WIL and feelings of disillusionment and despair among international students. To explore further, employers who actively host both domestic and international students were asked to rate potential concerns related to hosting international students (see Table 4). Relatively weak English language skills emerged as a key issue, with over half of the employers flagging this as an area of concern. There was a strong message that cultural fit, quality of produced work, and understanding of local business markets were not considered problematic matters. Slightly less so was increased mentoring and supervision, with over half of the sample stating that this was not a concern, however, approximately a quarter felt that it was.

The students' availability post-graduation was a concern for one-fifth of the sample, but was not so for around half. Finally, student availability for the placement interview and recruitment process did appear to be an issue, with around a third stating that it was of concern, and slightly more than 40 per cent that it was not. It appears, therefore, that there is more evidence of particular concerns in the decision to host international students on the part of those who actually have experience in this area. There is still, however, a discrepancy between what academics and students are sensing among employers, and what is actually projected by this particular sample of host employers.

Strategies leading to growth in WIL among international students

Those international students who had to organise their own placements, predominantly from engineering, noted a general lack of support from the university, and they felt that intervention strategies were necessary to raise participation in WIL and to improve their employment prospects upon graduation. The need for long-term collaborative partnerships between local employers and the university was commented on by some students who were disappointed with the current relations. Building networks to assist international students in sourcing placements more easily may be achieved by developing current strategies, and by approaching a broader range of potential host organisations. Several employers had not been presented with international students and stated that they would welcome hosting them. Others who currently host suggested bypassing human resource departments when organising placements, as these will often shut down new initiatives and prefer to follow existing practice on engaging in work placements. Enhancing the role of support services, such as careers, alumni, and international offices, and increasing coordination among these functions should assist international students in sourcing placements. Establishing partnerships with employers who have global operations and may thus benefit from the cultural insights and linguistic abilities of international students is also important. Such organisations could be reached via local business associations and professional bodies which serve members from different international regions. Establishing a formal commitment by firms to host a certain number of international students each year would be ideal. Encouraging student societies to introduce international students to local community groups, professional associations, businesses, and charitable organisations may also be beneficial.

Students should be introduced to current labour-market trends and gain insight into which types of organisations and which industries and sectors are employing new graduates. This may broaden their vision of where the jobs are and where they should be gaining experience, particularly in a soft graduate labour market. It may assist in highlighting the role of not-for-profit entities, local government, and small and medium-sized organisations in employing graduates, and the need to revise expectations beyond gaining experience only in high-profile, multinational organisations. It could highlight the need for extended travel and lateral thinking to secure placements in an environment where supply exceeds demand. Managing international-student expectations on the work load associated with placements is important. Broadly, students should be mindful of their academic load for the semester in which they complete their placement, and ensure that they limit their paid employment to a manageable number of hours.

Some academics, particularly in engineering, noted the option of completing placements abroad as a potential solution. This may ease the burden on sourcing local placements, and students may fit in better with their established networks, and combine their placement with a family visit. It does not, however, answer the call for gaining relevant work experience in a student's host country, and there is a lack of control over duty of care, risk management, and quality of learning--all of which are critical to a successful WIL program. A small number of employers felt that international students may be better to complete their work placement in their home country where they would feel more comfortable in a familiar environment. This initial introduction to applying theoretical knowledge in a practical environment would give them the confidence and skills to undertake additional experience in a new cultural context at a later time. One employer suggested extending WIL programs to regional areas where it may be easier to accommodate international students. This, however, raises issues for students who are completing other academic units at the same time and relying on their part-time employment to fund their studies; it may only work in full-time placement programs. Employers noted that there should be education around post-study education rights and visa regulations, as this is currently a rather grey and poorly understood area in industry.

A small number of students commented on the cost of the placement units being the same as other academic units and felt that this was a barrier to completing WIL. There are additional costs associated with placements--such as a reduction in paid employment, and the costs of appropriate clothing and travel--which may prevent some international students from participating. Some students noted that many were not aware of the placement opportunities available within their discipline, and that information on WIL programs should be more broadly advertised within universities.

'Non-placement' WIL is a means of combating high levels of competition for limited placement places and providing weaker candidates with the opportunity to engage with industry in an authentic learning experience. Delivery is often innovative, and can extend to virtual WIL. Options may include connecting students with industry through industry-based projects, role plays, and simulations without needing to be assigned to a particular organisation for work placement. Service learning, where students are based in the community to develop civic responsibility and a broader understanding of societal values may be a good option for some departments. This allows students to develop an understanding of Australian society and customs, while enhancing communication and team-working skills. It may be a worthy stepping stone for some to gain initial exposure to a new cultural environment, and be a platform for nurturing the confidence, communication, and cultural insight needed to be placed later in a professional environment. Finally, placing students in groups would give greater numbers exposure to industry, but with the same number of hosts making a commitment to the arrangement. This, however, could have unwanted implications if students from a similar background are placed together, as they may rely on one another and interact less with others in the workplace.

Some academics felt that rather than trying to change employer perceptions, the placement of students should cater to diversity and the differing needs of both student and employer. Academics noted that people cope differently in certain circumstances and placing a student where issues may arise due to potential bias, or an actual need for strong communication skills which are absent in an international candidate could cause more problems during the semester. On alignment, one employer advocated that as students are only in the workplace for a limited period, it was best to match them to a setting in which they felt comfortable--in terms of culture, tasks to be completed, and language--in order to ensure the best outcome for all parties. That said, academics debated whether placing a student according to their individualities--for example matching a student to a supervisor with a similar cultural background--could limit their learning.

Changing employer misconceptions and biases, and focusing on the positives associated with hosting international students were the overarching goals for most academics. On alignment, one student was highly opposed to employer reluctance, arguing that although they understood the preference for domestic students for paid employment, the bias was inexcusable for placements focused on providing a quality learning experience. When asked to consider ways in which organisations could better support international students, several students noted the elimination of bias among potential hosts as a desirable outcome, and that local employers should be more open to the concept of interacting with and supporting international students. An underlying message that universities should be exploring and managing this bias did emerge in the student survey responses. One employer felt that strategies should be in place to improve understanding, and then a more specific effort be made to eliminate bias among organisations and management. Those who had previously hosted international students commented on their superior work ethic and drive. They felt that the best way to overcome bias was to showcase international students as much as possible to change poor perceptions.

Improvements in language skills were considered critical to improve the take-up of international student placements and their success. Better preparation in report writing in business style and language, common jargon, writing emails appropriately, oral presentations, phone etiquette, and conversational English may assist. The focus should be on what is expected in the Australian workplace, rather than 'textbook English' and should be dealt with prior to placement.

5. Conclusion

Enhancing WIL outcomes for international students based in Australia can assist industry in strengthening global partnerships and national competitiveness; improve the profile of Australia universities as a destination of choice for those seeking international study; and improve their employment prospects in the international market. Despite the Blackmore et al. (2014) claim that 'overcoming barriers to international student engagement in WIL is now high on the agenda of many Australian universities', the scheme still appears to be under-resourced in the higher education sector, particularly in regard to preparing international students adequately and locating suitable placements for them.

Academics and students noted a number of specific benefits to industry from hosting international students on work placement. This thinking, however, did not appear to be shared by host employers, although they did note an accelerated work ethic mong international students and the opportunity for enhanced innovation and (or) productivity due to cultural and global insights. International students experience greater difficulties in securing placements than their domestic counterparts do. This was attributed by academics to a lack of networks, inflated expectations, logistical barriers, and concern among employers about cultural differences, and weak communication skills. These concerns were not overly apparent in employer responses, although there was more evidence of particular concerns among those who had experience in hosting international students than among those that did not. Overall, there was some disparity in the perceived reasons for the underrepresentation of international students among the three stakeholder groups. A number of strategies were identified for increasing international student participation in WIL. These included assisting students to build professional networks, which may assist them in sourcing quality placements; initiatives to revise student expectations in line with the realities of the workplace; expanding delivery options, and managing employer perceptions and preferences.

There remain a number of barriers to international students participating in WIL. Developing strategies to overcome these inhibitors should enhance the quality of international students' education through greater access to WIL offerings, and should place Australia in a better position in the global education market. It should assist students individually, by improving their employability and their likelihood of attaining employment upon graduation, and may deepen global engagement between Australia and other countries.

This study considered the broad cohort of international students participating in WIL. Gathering data on the perceptions of those who have not participated in WIL may further develop our understanding of barriers preventing international student participation in WIL. Exploration of differences in the barriers affecting students from a range of discipline groups and countries in a number of university settings would further enhance our understanding of key issues. It may also assist in developing better-tailored solutions and approaches at a faculty, school, and (or) course level and for particular cohorts of students, depending on their cultural heritage. While this study did not intend to explore racial or religious discrimination, it provides a starting point--and highlights the need--for research on this.

References

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Denise Jackson, Centre for Innovative Practice, School of Business and Law, d.jackson@ecu.edu.au
Table 1 Profile of International-student Survey
Respondents (N = 56)

Variable             Sub-groups      Frequency

Age                Younger than 20       0
                      20 to 24          29
                      25 to 29          18
                    Older than 30        9

Gender                  Male            37
                       Female           19

Continent of            Asia            41
origin                 Africa           10
                       Europe            3
                    North America        0
                    South America        2

Subject area of      Business or        27
placement          Engineering IT      23 4

Stage of study      Undergraduate       44
                    Postgraduate        12

Placement          Up to 150 hours      25
duration           From 150 to 300       4
                    More than 300       27

Table 2 Profile of Employer Survey Respondents (N = 97)

Variable        Sub-grouping                      Frequency    %

Organisation    Public sector                        18       18.6
type
                Private sector                       58       59.8

                Not-for-profit                       21       21.6

Organisation    1-49 (small)                         44       45.4
size
                50-149 (medium)                      16       16.5

                At least 150 (large)                 37       38.1

Sector          Accommodation, Cafes,                 5       5.3
                Restaurants and Retail

                Agriculture, Forestry,                2       2.2
                Fishing

                Communications                        5       5.4

                Cultural and Recreational             7       7.5
                Services

                Education                             8       8.6

                Electricity, Gas and Water            7       7.5
                Supply

                Finance and Insurance                16       17.2

                Health and Community Services        22       23.7

                Manufacturing, Construction,          8       8.6
                Transport, Storage, and Mining

                Personal Services, Property,         13        14
                Business and Other Services

Location        Perth metropolitan                   95        98
                Regional city                         1        1
                Rural town                            1        1

Company         Owner                                20       20.6
position        Director                             17       17.5
                Line Manager                         29       29.9
                HRM Manager or Officer               30        32

Role in WIL     Liaising with academic               53       55.2
                coordinators

                Deciding on placement                40       41.7
                opportunities

                Recruitment or selection of          47        49
                students

                Administration-related tasks         29       30.2
                (OHS, Risk, MOUs)

                Mentoring                            49       50.5

                Supervising                          57       59.4

Table 3 Reasons for Hosting Domestic but Not International Students

Reason                     Rating         Count    %

Unaware they were     Strongly disagree     8     22.2
available for work        Disagree          4     11.1
placement                  Neutral          9      25
                            Agree           5     13.9
                       Strongly agree      10     27.8

Opportunity had       Strongly disagree     7     19.4
not arisen,               Disagree          2     5.6
offered domestic           Neutral          3     8.3
only                        Agree           4     11.1
                       Strongly agree      20     55.6

Offered but have      Strongly disagree    25     71.4
declined due to           Disagree          2     5.7
concerns tor               Neutral          2     5.7
particular student          Agree           3     8.6
                       Strongly Agree       3     8.6

Offered but           Strongly disagree    26     74.3
declined due to           Disagree          4     11.4
international              Neutral          1     2.9
status                      Agree           1     2.9
                       Strongly agree       3     8.5

On v offer to         Strongly disagree    22     61.1
domestic students         Disagree          3     8.3
(that is,                  Neutral          5     13.9
Australian                  Agree           2     5.6
citizens)              Strongly agree       4     11.1

Previous bad          Strongly disagree    29     80.5
experiences with          Disagree          0      0
hosting                    Neutral          2     5.6
international               Agree           2     5.6
student(s)             Strongly agree       3     8.3

Relatively weak       Strongly disagree    25     69.4
communication             Disagree          1     2.8
skills                     Neutral          4     11.2
                            Agree           3     8.3
                       Strongly agree       3     8.3

Table 4 Concerns with Hosting International Students on Placement

Reason                    Level of concern        Frequency    %

Student availability      Of no concern at all       14        25
for interview or          Of little concern           9       16.1
recruitment process       Neutral                    15       26.7
                          Of some concern            10       17.9
                          A significant concern       8       14.3

Increased paperwork       Of no concern at all       23        41
                          Of little concern          14        25
                          Neutral                    10       17.9
                          Of some concern             8       14.3
                          A significant concern       1       1.8

Less likely to be         Of no concern at all       19       33.9
available post-           Of little concern          11       19.6
graduation                Neutral                    15       26.9
                          Of some concern             6       10.7
                          A significant concern       5       8.9

Weaker English            Of no concern at all        6       10.7
language capabilities     Of little concern           7       12.5
                          Neutral                    13       23.2
                          Of some concern            15       26.8
                          A significant concern      15       26.8

Poor cultural fit with    Of no concern at all       29       51.7
the organisation          Of little concern          10       17.9
                          Neutral                    10       17.9
                          Of some concern             4       7.1
                          A significant concern       3       5.4

Poor quality of work      Of no concern at all       24       42.9
                          Of little concern          11       19.6
                          Neutral                    10       17.9
                          Of some concern             7       12.5
                          A significant concern       4       7.1

Increased mentoring       Of no concern at all       18       32.1
and supervision           Of little concern          14        25
                          Neutral                    10       17.9
                          Of some concern            12       21.4
                          A significant concern       2       3.6

Lack of understanding     Of no concern at all       19       33.9
of local business         Of little concern          16       28.6
markets                   Neutral                    11       19.6
                          Of some concern             7       12.5
                          A significant concern       3       5.4
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Title Annotation:Contributed Article
Author:Jackson, Denise
Publication:Australian Bulletin of Labour
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2016
Words:8147
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