Why is London attracting so many fresh graduates?
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
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A recent report by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) found that almost half of graduates leave their universities in the years immediately after graduation. Astonishingly, just 9% of those surveyed said they were certain to stay in their university towns after their degree courses were complete, and almost a quarter of new graduates end up in London within six months of graduating. Outside the southeast, there's a kind of vicious circle at work: too often, students perceive a lack of opportunity in the towns and cities in which they've completed their degrees and head southwards; the 'brain drain' effect on these towns and cities robs them of an educated labour market that is the bedrock of new and innovative business ventures.
According to UPP's director Paul Marshall, the result is that "for our cities and regions it means a tragic loss of skills and human capital as graduates make the move south – reducing productivity and fuelling the growing disconnect between higher education institutions and the communities that house them." Marshall's solution places the responsibility for correcting this firmly at the universities' door: they should, he argues, be looking to forge closer links with local business, allowing students to gain experience and ensuring that they are aware of the employment opportunities that will be available on their doorstep when they finish their degrees. Good-quality housing for graduates is also an issue, suggests Marshall – and again he suggests that universities could invest more on this front: he argues that "by building and managing graduate accommodation, universities can provide their graduates with safe, affordable housing as a bridge between student life and working life."
A matter of investment?
There's a lot of work to be done to ensure that students – and local communities – feel like students are a part of the community, and figuring out who needs to do what is by no means a straightforward issue. Relationships between students and the local communities of which they form a part (at least temporarily) are not just a matter of economics, or even of housing for graduates. There's the more deep-seated social issue that students very go through university with only a very minimal sense that they live in their university town or city – as opposed to just staying there while they study – and unfortunately they often tend to be seen as outsiders (at best) and nuisances (at worst) by their neighbours.
Walk into the ‘student areas’ of any university city or town and it can be quite a strange experience. The streets of large Victorian houses are commonplace – but side-by-side with nicely maintained family homes you'll very often see multiple-occupancy student lets in very poor states of repair. For private landlords in student areas, the student population provides a steady stream of guaranteed, well-paying tenants, with little incentive to substantially invest in their properties. This in turn gives student tenants very little reason to feel invested in the upkeep of the property or in their immediate surroundings.
All this reinforces students' sense that their living conditions are temporary, and to view themselves as transient outsiders in their local communities rather than an embedded part of it. Add in the effect of high student populations on housing supply and inflated rent, making it more difficult for local people and families to find accommodation, and the undeniable fact that even the most respectful and considerate group of young adults are likely to keep very different hours from the young family next door, and it's little surprise that in many student areas there are tensions – and sometimes even open hostility – between the local community and its student population.
Civic universities and student citizenship
Meaningfully improving this situation is likely to be an ongoing challenge for all the stakeholders, and it's not a problem that can simply be legislated for. As long as private landlords maintain their properties in an inhabitable state, for instance, they can't be forced to keep the immaculately maintained gardens or frontages that would enhance the liveability of neighbourhoods with high student populations. And there's certainly no way to compel students to attend community events or residents' meetings, or residents to proactively welcome students into their community when their overtures may or may not be well-received.
As Marshall rightly suggests, the university is a central part of the puzzle here, as the principal conduit between students and the local area. But it's not just local businesses with which universities need to forge and consolidate enduring links. Universities differ widely in how much work they do to integrate their students into the local community, and how visible they make this work, but a number have community relations at the heart of their strategic plans. The University of Sheffield, for example, makes civic responsibility and engagement a key pillar of its overall strategy, encouraging its students to volunteer in the work of local charities and emphasising productive membership of the local community as an important aspect of student life. Such initiatives – together with the kind of economic partnerships Marshall recommends – could go a long way to harmonising relationships between university students and their local communities, enhancing a sense of both belonging and opportunity, and slowing the 'brain drain' as a result.