Students flock to cities – but how can they retain graduates?

Yep, that image again: graduation day at London South Bank University. Image: Getty.

Every autumn, hundreds of thousands of students begin their journey at university. For many, this will also mean moving away from home. As our report The Great British Brain Drain showed, students dominate migration patterns in the UK, with those who moved to go to university accounting for a fifth of all internal migration in 2014.

As a result, each year the movement of young people going to university cause a surge in the population of cities at the expense of non-urban areas. This is particularly true in large and medium-sized cities, with Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham being the biggest student gainers. And this inflow of students brings benefits to the local economy, as students tend to spend their money where they study.

Interestingly, London, in spite of its 49 higher education institutions, saw a large outflow of students to the rest of the country – though this did not represent a net loss of students, thanks to the larger inflow of foreign students the capital attracted.

The ability of a place to attract students from other parts of the country will therefore affect the strength of its economy. But as the UK continues to specialise in more high-skilled, knowledge intensive activities, the extent to which cities can attract and retain skilled graduates will have a bigger impact on their economic performance. And when we look at the movement of graduates in UK cities, the patterns are significantly different to the movement of students.

Graduate gain 2014-2015.

For a start, London saw the largest net inflow of graduates, with a quarter of all graduates working in the capital six months after graduation. Its pull is even more pronounced for new Oxbridge graduates, over half of whom (52 per cent) moved to London after finishing university.

By contrast, medium-sized and large cities experienced a large outflow of graduates to non-urban areas and to London. And while many cities experienced a gain in graduates from other places, they still saw a net graduate loss when we consider the number of students who studied in those places but subsequently left after graduating.

This variation in patterns across the country poses a key question: why are some places better at attracting graduates than others?

Our research suggests that cities that gained the most graduates did so because of their strong economies and the opportunities they can offer. For example, successful places like Basildon and Crawley attracted significant numbers of graduates despite not having a university campus.

Indeed, our analysis shows that it is not graduate salaries which explain the differences in graduate gains in cities across the country, but instead the job opportunities and career progression that they can provide. And this applies in terms of both retaining graduates who studied locally, and attracting others from other places. Looking at the type of jobs, our data shows that graduate gains were generally larger in places where knowledge intensive businesses employment accounted for a larger share of all new graduate positions.

Click to expand.

As such, if a city wants to attract and retain a greater number of graduates, then it needs to focus on wider economic growth and job creation policies that support the creation of more jobs, and particularly high-skilled knowledge jobs, rather than focus on policies that are specifically targeted at graduate attraction and retention. 

Ultimately, this comes down to strengthening the local economy, by investing in transport, housing and supporting high-knowledge businesses. This will help create high-knowledge jobs and make these places more attractive to both new graduates and other skilled workers.

Gabriele Piazza is a researcher at the Centre for Cities. This post was originally published on the think tank's blog.

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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.