04A more detailed look at the movement of university students and graduates

The large net inflow of young people with A-level qualifications and the outflow of degree holders indicate that universities play an important role in the movements of people to and from Birmingham and therefore the skills profile of the population. This section explores the migration patterns of students and graduates into and out of the city using two data sets from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA). The first looks at admissions (for all students at a UK university in 2014/15), and the second is based on a survey of graduates six months after graduation (for leavers in 2013/14 and 2014/15). Unlike the ONS data used above, it covers the whole of the UK and includes students who came from abroad.

Box 4: University campuses in Birmingham

This analysis covers Birmingham’s five university campuses: University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University, Aston University, University College Birmingham and Newman University. In the academic year 2014/2015, there were 60,900 students in Birmingham. The two largest universities, University of Birmingham and Birmingham City University, accounted for 42 and 34 per cent of the total students, respectively.

Where do students go?

Half of students in Birmingham came from the West Midlands

Birmingham attracts a large number of university students from other parts of the country every year, the fourth highest among UK cities. Looking at the origins of this group of young people as shown in Figure 13, the largest share came from the West Midlands: 36 per cent from Birmingham itself and 12 per cent from the rest of the region. At 17 per cent, foreign students represented the second largest group.

Figure 13: Origins of Birmingham’s university students, 2014/15

Most universities in the city have a regional pull, with the exception of the University of Birmingham. Looking at the two largest campuses, 59 per cent of students at Birmingham City University came from the West Midlands but only 24 per cent at the University of Birmingham were from the region. Similar patterns are seen in other cities, where Russell Group universities tend to have a wider pull, attracting university students from other parts of the country and abroad.

Half of Birmingham’s students remained in the city for university

Universities in the city are a popular choice among students from Birmingham, with half of them deciding to remain in the city to study.

Looking at where university ‘stayers’ study, 44 per cent of this group attended Birmingham City University. But this was only 23 per cent for the University of Birmingham, in spite of it being the largest campus. This is common among Russell Group universities, which are better able to attract students from other parts of the country.

When we look at the origins of each university’s student population, Newman University has the highest share of students from the city – 79 per cent – followed by the University College Birmingham – 57 per cent.

A third of Birmingham’s students who move away for university stay in the region

Looking where students from Birmingham end up studying, almost a third of those who decide to attend university elsewhere remain in the region. Looking at the movements to other cities, Coventry is the most popular place for Birmingham’s students who decided to move. This relationship is reciprocal: when looking at the movements of Coventry students, Birmingham was the most popular destination and this shows the strong population links between the two cities.

Where do graduates go?

While the pull of university students from other parts of the country tells us about the quality of Birmingham’s higher education institutions and its attractiveness as a place to study, it is its ability to retain and attract graduates from other parts of the country that will determine the skills of its future workforce.

Birmingham has the sixth highest retention rate of graduates of any city

When looking at the number of graduates retained, Birmingham performs better than most cities, retaining 49 per cent of its total new graduates, the sixth highest retention rate among UK cities. But the retention rate varies across universities. For example, the city retains three quarters of Newman University graduates but only a quarter of Aston University ones (Figure 14).

When it comes to closing the gap, the size of the campus and consequently the number of graduates retained matters. Looking at the share of total graduates retained by university campus, Birmingham City University is the largest contributor, accounting for 45 per cent of the graduates retained in the city.

Figure 14: Retention rate by institution, 2013/14 – 2014/15

Source: HESA, Destination of Leavers Survey

Almost three quarters of those retained were from Birmingham

Looking at the origins of those retained, almost three quarters (73 per cent) were originally from the city. But the origins of those retained vary across institutions: 88 per cent of the new graduates retained at Newman University were originally from Birmingham but this was only 52 per cent at the University of Birmingham. This is reflective of the origins of students, as explored in the previous section.

The retention rate of students who grew up in Birmingham was even higher — 83 per cent of those who had remained in the city for university ended up working there. This is the third highest share among UK cities with a university, and shows that the city has a strong record of ‘growing its own’ graduates.

Although the high overall retention rate should be seen as a positive, Birmingham should not just rely on this to close the gap. In fact, the number of new graduates retained over these two years represents around 10 per cent of the number of degree holders needed to close the gap with the rest of the country.3 But at 24 per cent, the retention rate for those university students not from the city is much lower. This suggests that Birmingham is an attractive place to study but less so when it comes to graduate job opportunities.

The city experienced the third largest inflow of graduates with no prior links to the city

The other component of graduate migration includes those attracted to Birmingham after graduation to work. While graduate retention figures tend to get the most attention, the ability of a place to attract new graduates from elsewhere is an important part of increasing the number of degree holders in its economy.

There are two groups within this cohort: those that grew up in Birmingham and moved away to study and returned to the city for work, and those that moved in for work but had no prior connection to the city.

Looking at ‘returners’ first, the city pulls back the majority of those from the city that had left for university: 53 per cent of those who had left to study elsewhere returned to Birmingham for work and this is the 4th highest among UK cities. Only London — 74 per cent — Manchester — 58 per cent — and Belfast — 57 per cent — had a higher share.

Turning to those who moved to the city for work, Birmingham saw the 3rd largest inflow of new graduates with no prior connection to the city. Only London and Manchester experienced a larger inflow, and it was followed by Leeds and Bristol. This indicates that large cities are attractive places to work for graduates. Figure 15 shows that a quarter of new graduates in this group were from the rest of the West Midlands, followed by the East Midlands.

Figure 15: Origins of new graduates moving in for work, 2013/14 – 2014/15

Source: HESA, Destination of Leavers Survey

On a city basis, Coventry was the largest contributor to the graduates making up 13 per cent of those moving into the city. London was the second with 9 per cent.

London was the most popular employment destination for those graduates who moved away for work

In terms of the 51 per cent of graduates who left Birmingham after university, London was the most common employment destination —22 per cent of those who moved upon graduation decided to work in the capital. This is also seen in many other cities and reflects the strong pull of the capital which employed 24 per cent of the total new UK graduates in this period. Coventry at 4 per cent and Telford at 2.8 per cent were the next two most common cities for Birmingham graduates to relocate to for work.

Overall this means that Birmingham gains graduates

Putting these flows together —comparing Birmingham’s retention of graduates who were not originally from the city and its ability to attract them from elsewhere to those Birmingham-raised students who subsequently went on to work elsewhere shows that the city gains graduates.

Between 2013 and 2015, 6,000 graduates who responded to the HESA survey had left Birmingham to go to university elsewhere, while 7,100 respondents who did not grow up in Birmingham were employed in the city after graduation. Figure 16 shows the size of this graduate gain. In absolute terms, this places Birmingham as the 17th largest gainer of graduates when compared to other UK cities. London gained 42,000 and Manchester 4,700.

Figure 16: Comparing students lost and graduates gained by Birmingham, 2013/14 – 2014/15

Source: HESA, Destination of Leavers Survey

This finding on the graduate gain may not appear to square with the earlier finding about the majority of new graduates leaving the city to work elsewhere. This is because there is one final cohort of students: the ‘bouncers’. These students move into Birmingham to study and leave straight after graduation.

Of all the students who moved to Birmingham to study, 76 per cent bounced. Relative to other cities this figure is low, the 24th lowest amongst cities that have a university. But in absolute terms, this is the third highest, only London and Nottingham had a higher number of bouncers. This cohort causes a lot of noise in the data. By excluding them and comparing the number of (would be) graduates in Birmingham before university with the number of graduates in the city after graduation, the graduate gain figure can be calculated. As Figure 17 shows, the graduate gain was just over a tenth of the number of bouncers, resulting in the outflow of young graduates shown earlier.

Figure 17: The bouncers and the graduates gained, 2013/14 to 2014/15

Source: HESA, Destination of Leavers Survey

In addition to this, there are two other elements that contribute to the graduate workforce size in the city: the ‘returners’ (those that returned home after study) and the ‘home-grown’ – those that were from Birmingham and decided to study and work in the city. Between 2013 and 2015 the number of returners amounted to 4,690 respondents whereas the number of home-grown graduates for the same period was equal to 8,600.

What does this mean for the number of degree holders in Birmingham?

As a result of retaining and attracting new graduates the number of degree holders in Birmingham’s economy has increased over time. Between 2006 and 2016, in absolute terms, the city experienced the third largest increase among cities in Great Britain – only London and Manchester had a larger increase in the size of their highly skilled workforce.

Figure 18 breaks down the share of working-age population with a degree over time by age groups. This shows two things. Firstly, despite the low overall share of people who have a degree in Birmingham, as shown in the first section, the share of people in the 25-29 and 30-39 age groups with a degree is close to the national average for the working age population and this has been the case for the past 10 years. Secondly, when we compare these two groups with their counterparts in the rest of the country, it shows that the gap between Birmingham and Great Britain is widening. This suggests that in spite of the graduate gain, more needs to be done to increase the number of degree holders in Birmingham’s economy and close the gap with the rest of the country.

Figure 18: Share of working age population with a degree, by selected age groups, 2006-2016

Source: ONS, Annual Population Survey


Looking at the movements of university students and graduates to and from Birmingham reveals that:

  • The majority of university student flows are between Birmingham and the rest of the West Midlands: the largest share of the university students in the city come from the rest of the region and a third of Birmingham students who leave, stay in the rest of the West Midlands to attend university.
  • Birmingham is an attractive place for graduates. The city retains 49 per cent of its graduates and it attracts the third largest number of graduates with no prior links to the city.
  • As a result of the movements of university students and graduates, Birmingham gained graduates. This has led to an increase in the share of people with a university degree in the city, but this has not gone up as fast as in the rest of the country.


  • 3 This number is based on a response rate for the Destination of Leavers Survey of 80 per cent.