Human capital is now firmly regarded as the foundation of cities’ economic success. A substantial body of research has shown that the skills of the workforce are a strong predictor of current and future economic success, with cities with higher shares of graduates performing well and cities with high shares of people with few formal qualifications struggling.1

As the UK economy continues to specialise in higher-skilled, knowledge intensive activities, the availability of high-skilled workers is an increasingly important asset for cities trying to nurture growth in the modern economy.

Cities have introduced a range of policies to try and keep new graduates once they have graduated. Examples include setting specific graduate retention targets, creating graduate intern schemes and offering wage subsidies to businesses if they hire new graduates. Box 6 provides more details.

Yet there remains a long-standing concern among commentators, politicians and cities themselves that nothing can stop the so-called ‘brain drain’ to London, with London variously described as a ‘giant sucking machine’ and a ‘dark star’.2

In part, these concerns are warranted. While London loses population to the rest of England and Wales – a fact often missed by many commentators – this is not the full story. Breaking migration patterns down by age shows that the capital experiences a large inflow of people aged 22-30, and an outflow of people aged 31 and older. Meanwhile other large cities such as Manchester and Birmingham experience a big inflow of people aged 18-21 – students – but then see outflows of people aged 22 and above.3

Given the importance of skills to UK city economies, it is vital that cities understand more about where students and then graduates move and why, to enable them to design and implement policies that improve the overall skills profiles of their cities.

This report fills the existing research gap by bringing together a number of datasets to analyse migration patterns within England and Wales by qualification.4 Firstly, it looks at the total flows of people cut by their highest qualification. Then it looks at the movements of students to university and new graduates to work.


  • 1 Glaeser E L and Resseger M G (2010) ‘The complementarity between cities and skills’, Journal of Regional Science 50 221–244; de la Roca J and Puga D (2012) Learning by working in big cities, DP 9243, Centre for Economic Policy Research, London; Moretti E (2012) New Geography of Jobs, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Swinney P and Thomas E (2014) A Century of Cities, London, Centre for Cities ; Cheshire P, Nathan M and Overman H (2014) Urban Economics and Urban Policy: Challenging conventional policy wisdom, Cheshire, Edward Elgar; Glaeser E & Saiz A (2003) ‘The Rise of the Skilled City’, NBER Working Papers 10191;
  • 2 Vince Cable, Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 19th December 2013.
  • 3 Centre for Cities (2014) Cities Outlook 2014, London: Centre for Cities
  • 4 For more on the data and methodology in the report, see here