Brain-drain or brain-gain? Exploring where graduates move to and why

Most cities see a graduate gain, but struggle to retain students who come to study

Paul Swinney

Head of Policy and Research

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The graduate brain drain to London is something that has troubled cities in the North for many years. But as our new report The Great British Brain Drain shows, there’s more to graduate movements than meets the eye.

It’s not surprising that the brain drain to the capital gets so much attention. London accounted for 19 per cent of all jobs in the UK in 2015, but attracted in 22 per cent of all graduates who chose to move after graduation. This pattern is even more acute for high achievers – of all the graduate movers who achieved a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university (2014 and 2015), 37 per cent were working in London six months after graduation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Share of all moving graduates by institution and class of degree, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey

But while these are headline-grabbing figures, they only tell part of the story. The migration patterns we see are driven by a group of graduates that we call the ‘bouncers’ – people that move to a city to study, but subsequently leave again straight after graduation. These bouncers accounted for almost half of the total student population.

When we set aside this group, we see a different picture. As the chart below shows, most cities actually see a graduate gain – the number of working graduates they attract in (either because they came to study and stayed for work, or moved in after graduation) is greater than the number of graduates who grew up in that city but now work elsewhere (either because they left for university and never came back, or studied in their home town but left after graduating).

Figure 2: The balance between the loss of domiciled students against the gaining of graduates from elsewhere, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey

So it is not that cities outside London do not retain graduates; it is that they do not retain the majority of those students that move to their city to study.

However, what this doesn’t account for is that university cities also grow their own graduates by educating students who grew up in the city and who then stay in their home town to work. When we factor in this cohort, just two cities – Wigan and Southend – had fewer graduates than students who went to university (see the chart below).

Figure 3: Graduates gained and graduates lost, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey

This highlights that as well as attracting graduates from other places and retaining students who move to a place to study, cities also need to focus on developing more home-grown talent, which will be just as important in increasing the supply of local high-skilled workers.

These issues are explored in more detail in the main report, but the data we have allows us to look at many more questions than we had space for – so keep an eye on the blog for more analysis and commentary in the coming weeks, as we explore themes such as the role of international students, the variation in graduate wages in different cities and sectors, and the policy implications for national and local leaders.

We’re also in the process of doing a number of city-specific briefings, which we will be publishing soon. If you’re interested in having a briefing for your city then please drop me a line.

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