Graduate ‘brain drain’ – is regional economic growth the solution?

college graduates groupBy Heather Cameron

With the economic performance of cities and regions increasingly reliant on the skills of their workforce, the longstanding issue of graduate ‘brain drain’ to London and the south is something that needs to be addressed.

Although students attend many of the universities spread across the country, a significant number of graduates flock towards the capital at the end of their studies. According to a recent report from Centre for Cities, this deprives other cities of skilled workers and essentially damages the overall economy.

The evidence

A quarter of all new graduates in 2014 and 2015 were found to have moved to work in London within the six months of finishing their degree. And the highest achievers make up a significant proportion. While London accounts for around 19% of all jobs, of the graduates that moved city six months after graduation London employed 22% of all working new graduates, and 38% of those with a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

Although most cities experience an overall graduate gain, cities outside London don’t retain the majority of students that move to their city to study – the ‘bouncers’ that drive the brain drain overall, overshadowing any gain:

  • Manchester lost 67% of these students upon graduation;
  • Birmingham lost 76%; and
  • Southampton lost 86%.

Other figures show that 310,000 graduates have left the north in the past decade, contributing to a net average deficit of 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving annually, or 75,500 over a decade.

Northern regions have to some extent offset the effect of local brain drain by attracting enough highly qualified foreign workers to fill the gap. But with reductions in immigration, these regions could be left lacking.

Given the UK’s current position regarding the EU, concerns have also been raised over whether Britain faces a further brain drain of academics to Europe, following Brexit. A recent survey highlighted that 42% of academics said they are more likely to consider leaving Britain after the vote to leave.

Why?

While it may seem plausible to assume that higher salaries are the reason for this brain drain, it appears that the main pull for graduates is the availability of jobs and career progression, which London’s vast labour market offers.

However, as recent research from Homes for the North has identified, these are not the only reasons. It highlights the importance of additional non-work drivers of graduate location decisions, including the cost and quality of housing, quality of local amenities and the prospect of home ownership.

Of the graduates polled, 80% said the quality of housing was important, while more than 60% said the cost of housing was important. The quality of green spaces and local amenities was also deemed important by over 60% of graduates.

What can be done to redress the balance?

There have been numerous graduate retention initiatives at the local and regional level aimed at tackling the uneven distribution of graduates, such as graduate wage subsidies and local graduate job matching.  But it seems little has improved. The Centre for Cities research argues that these alone will not tackle the root cause of the graduate brain drain.

It suggests that cities themselves have a vital role to play in ensuring the local job market offers an appropriate number of graduate job opportunities that will allow them to both retain graduates and attract graduates from elsewhere. Policy should therefore broaden its focus to improve local economies by investing in transport, housing and enterprise, rather than focusing solely on graduate retention and attraction policies.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities commented that the government’s new economic and industrial strategy should be used to strengthen existing devolution deals for city-regions such as Greater Manchester, extending their scope to grow.

Indeed, the industrial strategy green paper, published in January, clearly places emphasis on addressing the economic imbalances across the UK through a number of measures, such as working with local areas to close the skills gap, including new schemes to support the retention and attraction of graduates. However, the strategy has been criticised for providing little clarity on how regional rebalancing and sectoral deals will work in practice.

Final thoughts

While it appears clear that cities outside London need to improve their graduate offer with better job prospects, the evidence on graduate migration suggests it is more complex than this.

As has been argued, the provision of good quality affordable housing could play a role alongside high-skilled job creation and opportunities. With the cost of living in London so expensive, this would make sense, particularly as the average graduate salary in London is not that much higher than the average across other UK cities.


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