What drives the geography of new graduates?

Jobs are the most important factor influencing graduate location decisions. Research on graduate movements shows that access to employment is the key determinant of graduate movements, with those areas experiencing higher levels of economic growth better placed to attract and retain increased numbers of recent graduates.9

But it is not just the availability of jobs that are important. Research in the UK and elsewhere also points to the importance of career progression opportunities – known as the ‘escalator’ effect – in bigger cities, with this effect being particularly strong in knowledge-based activities.10 Unsurprisingly the escalator effect is most prominent in London, as a result of its much greater size – the new graduate labour market in London is over five times the size of second place Manchester.

Big cities are attractive to graduates. These findings help to explain the patterns seen in the charts below. Figure 18 shows that the share of graduates who grew up in a city and work in that city increases as a city gets larger.

Figure 18: The size of the graduate labour market and the share of graduates that work in the city they grew up in, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey.

Figure 18 also shows that bigger cities are more attractive to outsiders. The size of the bubble, which shows the number of graduates that have been attracted in from elsewhere, gets larger as the size of the graduate labour market grows. In other words, bigger cities have greater appeal to graduates who grew up in the city and those who grew up elsewhere. Both the greater availability of jobs and career progression opportunities in these cities are two reasons that help explain this observation.

But interestingly, as Figure 19 shows, there is no relationship between the size of a city and the mean graduate wage on offer. This suggests that high graduate wages are not the main reason for people moving to big cities, and that other factors such as the opportunities for career progression are more important. In medium and smaller cities such as Basildon, Newport and Worthing, however, where career progression opportunities are more limited, higher graduate wages may be playing a compensating role and helping to attract graduates to work there.

Figure 19: The size of the graduate labour market and mean graduate wages, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey.

Figure 20 shows that the graduate gain tended to be larger in cities where publicly funded jobs accounted for a smaller share of new graduate positions, while the opposite is the case for knowledge intensive business services (KIBS) jobs. This again would suggest the importance of career progression, especially given that even when looking at public administration more narrowly, there is a public sector pay premium to graduate jobs in almost every city.

Figure 20: Share of new graduate positions in publicly-funded jobs and KIBS and the graduate gain, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey.

Many cities are reliant on the public sector for graduate-level jobs. As Figure 21 shows, the public sector tended to play a smaller role in southern cities and in bigger cities further north. In Crawley, the lowest, they accounted for one in three new graduate positions. But in Barnsley, the highest, they accounted for two in three new graduate positions. The opposite geographic pattern is seen for the share of jobs in KIBS industries.

Figure 21: Share of new graduates working in publicly-funded and KIBS jobs, 2013/14-2014/15



HESA destination of leavers survey.

The dominance of publicly funded sectors in the new graduate labour market in cities such as Barnsley, Chatham and Blackburn reflects the weakness of the private sector in these areas, rather than an oversized public sector. Figure 22 shows that cities that are most reliant on publicly funded sectors for new graduate jobs also tend to have the lowest numbers of private-sector positions for university leavers.

If these cities are to attract and retain a greater number of graduates, they will need to focus on policies that support the private sector to create graduate-level opportunities to complement the positions available in public administration, education and health.

Figure 22: The publicly-funded and private sectors in the new graduate jobs market, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey, ONS population estimates

Box 5: The role of publicly funded industries in the new graduate labour market

The public sector plays a significant role in the graduate labour market. Publicly funded jobs make up around 27 per cent of all jobs in Britain. But for new graduates, they accounted for 46 per cent of all jobs the 2013/14 and 2014/15 cohort took up. This was dominated by education and health workers, who accounted for 37 per cent of all new graduate jobs.

Industries where new graduates worked, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey

Housing costs do not appear to deter graduates

As Figure 23 shows, there is no relationship, positive or negative, between graduate gain and the housing affordability ratio in cities.

Figure 23: Graduate gain and housing affordability, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey, Housing Affordability Index 2015 (house price divided by average yearly earnings)

But the importance of housing affordability differs for higher and lower achieving graduates. Figure 24 shows that there is a positive relationship between the share of high achieving graduates in the new graduate workforce of a city and housing affordability. The opposite is seen for shares of low achieving graduates.

Figure 24: Correlations between the share of graduates by achievement and housing affordability, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey, Housing affordability ratio 2015 (house price divided by average yearly earnings)

While conclusions must be drawn with caution, the charts suggest that the importance of accessing job opportunities in stronger economies may be a bigger driver for higher achieving graduates than lower achieving ones and that housing cost factors do deter lower achieving graduates from staying in or moving to cities with high housing costs relative to wages.

Amenities matter but not as much as employment factors

Commentators often highlight quality of place factors as key influences on the location decisions of graduates. However, research from Sweden showed that skilled migrants gave much greater weight to jobs than the availability of amenities.11 And these findings are echoed in specific studies on Brighton and Dublin.12

While amenities clearly have an effect it is important not to over-state their influence. Figure 25 shows the share of graduates working in higher level occupations13 in a city against its graduate gain. The only cities that have a graduate gain with a markedly lower share of graduates working in top occupations were Norwich, Ipswich, York and Cardiff. While these cities undoubtedly have good quality amenities their amenity offer does not appear to be exceptional compared to many other cities in the UK.14

Figure 25: Graduates employed in higher level occupations and the ‘graduate gain’, 2013/14-2014/15


Source: HESA destination of leavers survey


  • The availability of jobs appears to be the biggest factor influencing new graduate mobility patterns, with the availability of career progression opportunities appearing to be more important than graduate wage levels.
  • Big cities are particularly attractive to graduates because their labour markets are able to offer a wide range of job and career progression opportunities.
  • Many cities are reliant on the public sector for graduate-level jobs. But those cities that are more reliant on publicly funded sectors for graduate jobs tend to see smaller inflows of new graduates. This is the result of a lack of job opportunities and career progression within the private sector rather than an over-sized public sector.
  • Graduates do not seem to be detered from moving to cities with high housing costs. This is particularly the case for graduates that achieved a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.


  • 9 Faggian A & McCann P (2009) Universities, agglomerations and graduate human capital mobility Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 100 (2); Storper M, Kemeny T, Makarem N and Osman T (2015) The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies,: Lessons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, Stanford University Press
  • 10 Gordon I, Champion T and Coombes M (2015) “Urban escalators and interregional elevators: the difference that location, mobility, and sectoral specialisation make to occupational progression” IN Environment and Planning A, Vol 47 No 3 Mar 2015, pp588-606; Fielding A J (1992) Migration and social mobility: South East England as an escalator region, Regional Studies 26 1–15
  • 11 Niedomysl, T and Hansen, H. (2010) ‘What Matters more for the Decision to Move: Jobs versus Amenities’ environ Plan A. Vol no. 7. PP. 1636-49.
  • 12 Pollard E, Cowling M, Barber L, Millmore B and Hunt W (2008) ‘The Brighton factor: new graduates and their local labour market’ (Report 450) Institute for Employment Studies, Mantell Building, University of Sussex Campus; Lawton, P. Murphy, E. and Redmond, D. (2013) ‘Residential preferences of the ‘creative class’?’. Cities, 31 (2): 47-56
  • 13 Defined as the Standard Industrial Codes managers, directors and senior officials, professional occupations and associate professional and technical occupations.
  • 14 Another explanation could be that a number of students are choosing to remain in the city that they grew up in, but a relatively low share of working graduates in these cities grew up in them.