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How to respond to graduate migration patterns

January 2023

Paul Gratrick, writing for the new edition of What do graduates do?, considers what the latest data on graduate migration patterns means for higher education

When working in higher education we often find ourselves discussing myths and untruths about the sector. This covers a range of things such as the linearity (or rather not) of graduate career paths, national employment trends, and various other elements of the student experience.

It's doubtful that higher education is alone in this regard, and in any industry there are probably things that outside lookers-in think are true when the reality is quite the opposite. This article focuses on one of the myths often encountered which is with regards to graduate migration.

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What do graduates do? 2023

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There are four ways to think about graduate migration, coined by Charlie Ball nearly a decade ago, and they serve as a useful way to categorise this movement of thousands of people every year.

  • Loyals - studied and now live and work in their home region.
  • Returners - studied in another region, but now live and work in their home one.
  • Stayers - studied in another region and stayed there to live and work.
  • Incomers - studied in one region, and left to live and work in another that isn't their home one.

The 'Dick Whittington fallacy' is one of the myths often encountered, in that people assume that most graduates want to and do move to London. Looking at those four categories and UK undergraduates from the 2019/20 Graduate Outcomes survey data, Loyals account for 42%, Returners 26%, Stayers 11% and Incomers 21%.

Another way to view this is that two-thirds (68%) of graduates are based in their home region 15 months after graduating. Various factors will influence this, such as family and relationship ties, caring responsibilities, job opportunities and desires, and regional cost of living variations.

What's needed are strong partnerships between HEIs and local government and councils, enterprise communities and regional SMEs.

Across the UK there are significant variations in the percentage of graduates living in their home region after graduation (Loyals plus Returners). It's highest for the home nations outside of England, that is, Northern Ireland (96%), Scotland (88%) and Wales (76%). In England there is broad range, with the West Midlands (75%) and North East (74%) at the top end, and London (52%) at the other. Even though London is the lowest for this score it still means that most of its graduates stay or return there.

After London (48%), the stickiest regions that keep or attract graduates (Stayers plus Incomers) are the South West (36%), South East (34%) and Yorkshire and Humber (33%).

What does all of this mean for higher education institutions? Most of the graduates originally from the region where you are based will now live there. Many, but by no means all, will have studied with you or another institution in the region. It's a significant number either way, and so graduate-level job opportunities are key to your graduate outcomes.

Graduates from institutions across the UK will return and compete for jobs with your local graduates, but viewing it in these competitive terms is fatalistic, as the same applies to almost all institutions and regions.

What's needed are strong partnerships between HEIs and local governments and councils, enterprise communities and regional SMEs, to name an obvious few. Examples of regional graduate schemes already exist, many led by AGCAS members and partners, and it is this coordinated effort between relevant stakeholders that can better surface and create graduate level employment. Without proactive efforts to showcase and generate graduate-level roles in any region, the majority of graduates may find it harder to secure that type of work.

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