Employability Amplified: The Power of Global Internships

I am especially pleased to share this guest post by Davina Potts, an Australian colleague whose research -on the impact of education abroad on student employability- I’ve widely cited in my work on this topic. She is currently Associate Director, Careers, Employability & Global Learning at the University of Melbourne. This blog follows publication of her latest research for the International Education Association of Australia, “Career Outcomes of Learning Abroad.”

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A new study on the Career Outcomes of Learning Abroad for graduates of Australian universities has found that global internships provide significantly greater work-related benefits from the perspective of former participants, than other types of learning abroad programs. Participation in any type of learning abroad promoted positive growth in skills and competencies that were relevant to the workplace. However, the impact was amplified for respondents who undertook an internship, professional practicum or clinical placement while abroad.

The COVID-19 global health emergency has thrown our world and our higher education systems into chaos. Against this backdrop, it may be difficult to understand why these results are important. Considering that the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be graduating into the worst economic conditions we have ever experienced, employability is more important than ever. Our students will need extra support to enter an intensely competitive job market. We can use these research findings to provide additional support by helping them to reflect on their international experiences and related skills development. More than ever, they will need to be able to tell their story and convince prospective employers of the value they will bring to their organization. And if they have undertaken a global internship, they are already a step ahead.

The Career Outcomes of Learning Abroad project surveyed more than 3,300 alumni of Australian universities who participated in learning abroad programs to understand the connections between international study, careers and employment. The study included respondents from 36 of 39 public universities, a broadly representative, national sample and is the largest learning abroad outcomes project conducted in Australia. The final report has recently been published by the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA).

The study included participants of all types of learning abroad programs including classes at a host university, study tours, research and internships. Two hundred and eleven participants (6.3%) indicated that they undertook an internship as the main activity of their international education experience. Across 4 areas of career impact, internships were rated as providing significantly greater benefit than other program formats. These areas were:

  • Developing skills to support your professional role
  • Obtaining your first job in your field of study
  • Obtaining subsequent career-related jobs
  • Developing your professional knowledge

Across nine employability skills tested, internships had a significantly higher impact on:

  • Teamwork, and
  • Problem-solving skills

(differences reported here were significant at the P=.05 level).

These findings are important because of the endorsement they provide for the value of global internships. This is an area where we need more evidence to advocate for our work, and to demonstrate to students the possible return on investment for the time, effort and cost of gaining international work experience. 

It’s important to note that the characteristics of internship participants were different to the overall sample – they were more likely to be studying a health discipline, to have studied abroad for seven weeks or less, and were more likely to be working for a public or non-profit organization. They were also more likely to be graduate students when they studied abroad.

Moving forward, institutions have the opportunity to build more opportunities for work experience programs into their learning abroad offerings. While the findings of this study are particular to one national context, they support similar findings in other countries and there are good reasons to believe that global internships can provide all graduates with a competitive edge in the job market. I am advocating for Australian universities to use this time of pause in regular learning abroad operations to partner with organisations (providers, companies, government agencies etc) to build internship and other practical experience programs. When our students are able to travel again, we will be ready and able to support even more students to undertake internships abroad.

In 2019, the Australian Government introduced performance-based funding for universities. In the future, 40% of the possible funding available under the scheme will be awarded based on graduate employment outcomes (specifically, employment status 4 months after graduation). For our institutions, guiding our students to success in employment has become more important than ever before. Learning abroad, specifically global internships, are one tool available to support graduate success.

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