North of England ‘suffering brain drain as graduates flock to cities’

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The North of England and coastal areas are experiencing a “brain drain” of university graduates as many move to London and other cities with better labour market opportunities, a report suggests.

Graduates are 10 percentage points more likely to have moved away from the area where they grew up than otherwise similar non-graduates by the age of 27, an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report says.

Researchers say geographical inequalities are being “exacerbated” by graduates moving from more deprived areas of the country to cities to improve their career prospects.

Policymakers should think about how to attract and retain talent in less well-off areas, they add.

Ethnic minorities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to move than their peers, according to the IFS report, which was funded by the Department for Education (DfE).

The report said black and Asian graduates are no more mobile than otherwise similar non-graduates.

Cities, like London, Bristol and Brighton, which already produce large numbers of graduates, gain more through migration, while there is brain drain from the North and coastal areas, which already produce low numbers of graduates.

Researchers found that only 19% of those who grow up in Grimsby get degrees. But many graduates leave, so that by age 27, only 12% of the same cohorts living in Grimsby have degrees.

In contrast, 35% of those who grow up in London get degrees. Even more graduates move to London, so that 44% of the same cohorts living in London at age 27 are graduates.

Researchers analysed linked administrative school, university and tax records for all pupils who were born in the late 1980s and completed their GCSEs in England between 2002 and 2005.

The tax records include data on where people live during their working lives which allowed researchers to assess how geographical mobility varies by education, socio-economic background and ethnicity.

Xiaowei Xu, a senior research economist at the IFS and co-author of the report, said: “In moving from more deprived areas to London and other cities, graduates improve their own career prospects, but this exacerbates geographical inequality in skills.

“As well as ‘levelling up’ educational attainment across the country, policymakers should think about how to attract and retain talent in places that are currently less well-off.”

“This suggests that reducing barriers to geographical mobility of such graduates could be an important way to improve their labour market outcomes and hence boost social mobility.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “As many policymakers are among those who have left the area where they grew up for the bright lights of London, they tend to struggle when trying to explain why this is a bad journey for other people to make.

“It’s also a particularly deep challenge in the UK where a residential university experience away from your home is the norm and where London is so dominant.

“So all in all, this is yet another challenge for the new ministerial team and especially those with responsibility for levelling up.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “This report demonstrates that higher education is an important lever for social mobility but we know that for too long young people have felt they don’t have the local opportunities needed to achieve their full potential.

“That is why we are providing billions of pounds in new funding to support levelling up across the country, improving services and increasing local opportunities.

“Universities are playing a central role in this mission, engaging locally and partnering with businesses so that all students, regardless of location or background, are able to pursue a meaningful career.”

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