Brain drain: jobs and housing forcing almost half of graduates to leave their university town

Many of the UK’s regions are suffering from “brain drain” as they struggle to hold on to their graduates, as a new report shows that just 9% of students are certain they will stay in their university towns after graduation.

The report, Skills to pay the bills: How students pick where to study and where to work’  was undertaken by University Partnerships Programme (UPP), the leading provider of on-campus student accommodation infrastructure and support services in the UK.

It finds that students in areas that are amongst the UK’s most prosperous are least likely to consider moving away from their university town or city once they graduate. Just a third (35%) of students in London are considering moving city after graduating, compared to 41% in both the North West and East of England, and 63% in the West Midlands.

The report finds that nationally, 48% of all students won’t stay in their university town after graduation, whilst 40% of students say that they will live and work in the city where they studied (net values). However, this balance tips in favour of mobility as students progress through their undergraduate degree – of third and fourth year students, 54% expect to move (up from 42% for first years) whilst only 36% expect to stay. 

Overall, the overwhelmingly decisive factor in determining whether a student believes they will remain in their city or region of study is the perceived availability of graduate opportunities. Sixty-three percent of students raised job prospects as the primary driver of where they will live and work post-study. The next decisive factor, at 38%, was the availability of affordable accommodation.

Jon Wakeford, Director of Strategy and Communications at UPP and a member of the Higher Education Commission, says: “Graduate retention is a crucial symptom of the medium-term economic prospects of a city and a driver of future growth, productivity and prosperity. Retention is also central to evaluating the role of universities themselves as civic and economic institutions within their communities – contributing to the health and wealth of the cities and regions in which they are based.

“Understanding how many graduates stay and work in the place they were educated tells us a great deal about relative levels of graduate opportunities around the country; it shows us what is missing from the employment and lifestyle mix in particular regions; and it helps us to unpack the knotty question of what drives so many UK graduates to relocate to London so quickly after graduation. Government, local authorities, Universities and business need to work together to encourage high-quality, affordable house building in key regions.

“Our polling shows that young people increasingly frame their choices about post-study life in terms of economic opportunities. We know that lots of great work is occurring at individual universities, such as forging links with local businesses - however, more should be done to improve the individual attractiveness of institutions to students worried about their long-term economic vulnerability. It would help applicants to make informed decisions and help students identify opportunities for their own economic stress.”

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said: “This important research highlights the Catch-22 that some university towns and cities find themselves in. They want graduates to stay in the local area in order to support future economic growth, but graduates are more likely to stay if the employment opportunities and housing are already there. Areas with a shortage of higher-level skills need a joined-up approach in which central government, local government and universities jointly provide new incentives for graduates to stay in, and help regenerate, the areas where they chose to study.

“This is a particularly British problem because, in many countries, you typically attend university in the area where you grew up. Students in the UK, in contrast, are more mobile because our boarding-school model of higher education assumes you leave your home area to study somewhere else in the country. This model has some real advantages, but it means areas in need of more graduates must do more to encourage them to plant roots.”

In particular, the UPP research points to a number of actions that universities should, in partnership, prioritise:

1. Universities should explore opportunities to work with businesses and vocational learning providers in order to provide modules for apprenticeships and vocational training that add flexibility and long-term resilience to these qualifications in the face of labour market change

2. Universities should work with central Government in order to improve the metrics used to create and measure the TEF, in order to improve its insight and drive up confidence in TEF as a measure of quality.

3. Universities should invest in local employability schemes that match students and graduates with local businesses (in particular SMEs) in order to both raise their own employability offer and to highlight local graduate employment opportunities.

4. Universities should work closely with local and regional government in order to drive forward schemes that improve the stock of affordable, local graduate housing options in order to improve the ‘stickiness’ of their communities for graduates.

To view the full report, click here