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The reality of graduate migration

February 2018

Few graduates behave how policymakers expect when they decide where to work, potentially leading to a geographical skills mismatch and talent going to waste

Is graduate mobility a myth?

The model the UK has adopted to describe the way that students enter and leave the higher education system makes certain assumptions.

This is exemplified by the way we approach university applications. Students are provided with reams of data and league tables with the aim that well-informed applicants look at these, along with Key Information Set metrics, to determine which of the UK's institutions offer the course that they want.

Once they have moved away to their chosen institution, they study, take advice and use metrics and more tables to determine where (often London) they want to work. Salary-based metrics are prominent because they want to earn as much as possible.

Of course, this is not what applicants and graduates actually do. In fact:

  • most graduates (51% in 2015/16) went to a university in the same region that they grew up
  • 58% went to work in the same region that they studied in
  • 69% went to work in the same region that they grew up.

Students and graduates are consulting the data, but their definition of 'best for me' does not always match some of the expectations that others have for them.

Where do graduates look for work?

We can go further and look at how graduates' employment location is affected by their home and university region.

Using this principle, graduate employees in a given area can be assigned to the following four groups:

  • Loyals do not move region. They study and work in the region in which they were originally domiciled. They made up 45% of 2015/16 graduates (the same as last year).
  • Stayers move away from their home region to another region to study and stay there to work. They made up 13% of 2015/16 graduates, up from 12% last year.
  • Returners move to another region to study and then return home to work. 24% of 2015/16 graduates were Returners, the same as last year.
  • Incomers find work in a region away from both their home and where they studied. They made up 18% of 2015/16 graduates, down from 19% last year. 42% of all Incomers work in London, and 34% of all 2015/16 graduates working in London were Incomers.

In general, Loyals are the most likely to be women, to be from low participation backgrounds and to be mature graduates. They tend to fare around the average for graduates in terms of likelihood to enter non-graduate employment (unsurprising, as they're much the largest group), and are particularly concentrated in public sector jobs. The large majority of nurses, for example, are Loyals - which has implications for recruitment.

Incomers are the most likely group to be men, the most likely to be from high-participation backgrounds, and the most likely to be in well-paid, professional-level employment - particularly in engineering, IT and business services roles.

Stayers are the smallest group, but are much more likely than average to be in good quality employment, across a range of sectors - particularly in business services and the arts and media. The stronger the local and national economy, the more Stayers we tend to see. Graduates often opt to stay with the social groups they have formed at university, if they feel that they have that option.

If we can make better sense of our graduate populations, we can make better use of their talent

Returners are the most likely to struggle in the labour market, although the majority still get graduate jobs. Many return home having not secured work elsewhere on graduation. This group represent a particularly policy and guidance challenge.

Although some are graduates from low participation backgrounds, returning home to difficult labour markets on graduation, many are from affluent and high-participation areas of the country but ones with weak local labour markets.

Often they are the children of professionals with well-paid jobs who commute into cities (particularly London) from less populous areas. East Anglia, for example, has a lot of Returners. Others are from rural labour markets with poor local transport links, with few options available to them when they return home.

This group is united by one common experience. On returning to their local labour markets, it is not easy for them to find work and it is not always clear who is responsible for helping them. The institution they graduated from may not be easy for them to get to and may, in any case, not have a great deal of insight into their current circumstances. If there is a local institution, it may not have the resources to deal with a graduate from another institution.

Is talent being wasted?

It is becoming clear that as well as mismatch between graduate supply and demand at subject level, we may well have a geographical mismatch and as a consequence talent may be going to waste.

Graduates are not infinitely mobile and just because they have a qualification that is in demand in one part of the country does not mean that they are willing or equipped to know about or take advantage of those opportunities.

These are questions that the sector could do well to address. If we can make better sense of our graduate populations, and how they interact with the economy at a local level, we can make better use of the talent we have available and start to make a real difference to local economies.


Data from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, HESA, 2016-2017.

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