University graduates leaving UK cities for London

10 August 2018 6 min. read
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With Brexit threatening to redraw the ability of firms to draw on talent pools from the EU, while high employment and an ageing population make filling roles a challenge, the UK’s cities are collectively battling a brain drain. While 51% of young adults in London are considering leaving in coming years, the city is doing its best to battle this, absorbing talent from other UK cities in the process, while the North West is the region most effectively combating this trend in turn.

The concept of a brain drain is nothing new, as graduates have been exiting the area they obtained their degree in to seek better paid work elsewhere for decades. In 2005, for example, it was found that more than 1.44 million graduates had left the UK to look for more highly paid jobs in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, far outweighing the 1.26 million immigrant graduates arriving in the UK, leaving a net "brain loss" of some 200,000 people. Now, as Brexit looms large, threatening to further clip the number of skilled migrants arriving in the UK, as free movement of labour from the continent is one of the Government’s notorious ‘red lines’, both public and private employers are facing the very real prospect of a talent crisis.

The UK is unlikely to even be able to look to the apparent comfort that AI will be able to replace some of this labour, as a number of reports have suggested the innovative new technology will actually require the creation of more jobs than it takes. With this in mind, businesses and the government have a great deal of soul searching to do when it comes to retaining key talent in the years to come – perhaps even having to pay a premium for skilled workers – in order to ensure a successful economic future.

Next generation of Londoners

Now a new study has found that the majority of UK cities are losing this battle, with the exception being London. The capital is seen by many as the area of the UK best insulated from the impact of Brexit, with the metropolitan, multicultural city well-linked to Europe and the world as one of the globe’s top trade hubs. Grant Thornton still found that 51% of both current university students and 16-18 year-olds from across the country, including London, considered themselves firmly in the “London Rejecter” category, consisting of those who don’t want to live or work in London, and don’t expect to, although nearly 7 in 10 (69%) students who study in the capital want to stay and work there after graduating, reluctantly or otherwise, in coming years.

Beyond the capital, the picture looks far grimmer for most regions. The East and South East were the worst performing locales when it comes to battling brain drain, with 12% and 14% of prospective graduates there planning to stay respectively. In the East and West Midlands, meanwhile, a sparse 17% of students informed Grant Thornton they intended to stay in the region after graduation.

In contrast, the North West is outperforming other regions in combatting the ‘brain drain’, which is set to see many young people move to London in search of professional roles on graduation. The region saw 28% of students wanting to stay and work there after graduating. In addition, the North West performed well at retaining young talent at an even earlier stage, with 46% of respondents who grew up in the North West also choosing to go to university in the region.

When individuals were quizzed on what factors were important to them when choosing somewhere to live and work after graduation, North West students followed the Millennial trend of prioritising work-life balance over other factors, with 51% of students saying this was important to them. Job availability was also important to 43% of respondents, while 42% said they wanted to be based somewhere with good opportunities for their career.

Interestingly, the group seemed at least equally motivated by how bad London could be, or at least how it represented little improvement on their current situation, rather than how fine conditions were in the North West. With a frankly low 37% saying affordability of housing in the North West was important in wanting to stay – suggesting housing isn’t as affordable as it might be – the same sample also noted reservations about what life in London had to offer, with 84% stating that the affordability of housing was poor and 77% adding it was a place where it was difficult to afford essentials such as food or utilities, suggesting that the stagnation of wages in the expensive city was also a factor putting them off, even though 62% conceded that there were probably more opportunities for career development in the capital.


Unsurprisingly given the strong science and pharmaceutical infrastructure in the North West, the majority of respondents also cited a clear idea of the sectors they wished to work in post-graduation, with science and life science being the most popular choice, and 27% of respondents wishing to work in these fields. This was closely followed by the media, the public sector and health and social care, as 26% highlighted a desire to enter work in each of these fields, while 19% hoped to work in technology or telecommunications.

Discussing the research, Carl Williams, North West practice lead at Grant Thornton UK, said, “Businesses up and down the country and from every single sector are crying out for talent…What is worth noting is that it’s not just job opportunities and careers that attract the brightest graduates. They also want to live somewhere where they can enjoy a good work-life balance and in vibrant communities where there is plenty for them to enjoy in their leisure time. Certainly, the North West punches above its weight in this regard, and this is doubtless no small part of why we are retaining talent to such an extent.”

Williams added that businesses in both London and the North West needed to guard against complacency, however, stating, “There is always more businesses can do to make their location and offering enticing for fresh talent. As we continue to see skills shortages across many sectors and the impacts of Brexit on the talent pool become more apparent, this will become an increasingly business critical issue and companies need to be thinking about this now to alleviate potential problems in the future.”