Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Addressing the divide: The impact of university-related migration on UK’s subregions and policy roadmap

  • 22 April 2024
  • By Kostas Kollydas and Anne Green

In their recent study “The gainers and losers from the United Kingdom’s university-related migration: A subregional analysis of Graduate Outcomes Survey data”, Professor Tony Champion, Professor Anne Green, and Dr Kostas Kollydas offer an insightful analysis of higher education-related migration within the UK, utilising Graduate Outcomes Survey data from the academic years 2017/2018 and 2018/2019. This research provides a comprehensive examination of young adults’ migration paths from their homes to universities and subsequently to their initial workplaces 15 months after graduation, and it sheds light on the impact of such migration on subregional disparities. It is well-established that graduates play a pivotal role in bolstering local economies through their skills, productivity, and contribution to economic growth – this accentuates the significance of the study’s findings.

Data and methods

The study’s innovative approach involves coding address data from the Graduate Outcomes Survey across 53 UK subregions, allowing for detailed tracking of individuals living in the UK who embarked on undergraduate courses by the age of 20. This methodology enables a nuanced understanding of higher education-related migration patterns and their implications at a subregional level. Hence, it provides a level of spatial detail beyond traditional regional analyses. The study also develops a classification system for subregions, which are sorted by their net gains or losses in student/graduate populations. It further divides these movements into eight specific migration pathways to analyse the impacts both quantitatively and qualitatively. Specifically, qualitative impacts are evaluated based on educational qualifications of graduates before university and their occupational status 15 months after graduation.

Key findings: A summary

The research reveals significant differences in migration outcomes among students and graduates across the UK. London, for example, benefits disproportionately from a substantial influx of graduates, with a ratio of 1.72 for post-university workplace numbers of graduates relative to pre-university (“domicile”) numbers. Importantly, a greater number of subregions suffer from a “double whammy” effect, as they experience losses in both numerical and qualitative measures, compared to those that benefit from net gains through university-related migration. Overall, only 17 out of the 53 UK subregions see net gains in numbers from this “going away to university” process. Many such “net gainers” include major cities and/or national capitals that naturally attract young talent.

In contrast, areas like the Highlands & Islands, Suffolk, Cornwall, Shropshire, and Cumbria (among others) face challenges in retaining their student populations. They experience significant net losses. Furthermore, the study identifies subregions that exhibit relatively unique migration patterns. For instance, Nottinghamshire and Bristol demonstrate a capacity to attract a considerable number of students from outside the area (who relocate there for their studies), likely due to their attractive university options. Meanwhile, the reliance on “home-grown” graduates in Glasgow and Northern Ireland provides a different picture and highlights the importance of strategies that both retain local talent and entice newcomers.

Policy implications

The study’s insights prompt crucial questions for policymakers: How can strategies be developed to support subregions experiencing “brain drain”? What measures can encourage a more equitable distribution of graduates across the UK?

To boost the appeal of rural and peripheral areas to students and graduates, a comprehensive strategy is essential. It would seem prudent to suggest that this strategy should primarily focus on improving educational facilities, work placements for students and job opportunities, and local infrastructure, while not being limited to these aspects. Such initiatives can make these areas more attractive to highly skilled people. They would also enhance the economic and social vitality of these places. In turn, this might entice back at a later stage in their life course some individuals who move away initially. It is important, however, that each subregion’s unique needs and strengths must guide these efforts.

Moreover, creating a supportive ecosystem for lifelong learning and professional development would likely help peripheral rural areas keep their local talent and draw graduates from elsewhere. In a similar vein, stronger collaborations among universities, businesses, and local governments are imperative. They can ensure education programmes meet the changing needs of both local and wider labour markets. This alignment should help graduates gain the necessary skills and knowledge for success.

Finally, investing in science and technology infrastructure would be beneficial, especially for subregions losing highly skilled individuals. Such investments might turn these areas into innovation and research hubs, which attract competitive businesses and professionals, thereby fostering a cycle of economic growth and development. Again, a close cooperation among regional/local authorities, educational institutions, and the private sector is vital, as it would probably ensure strategic and effective investment.


The thorough analysis in the aforementioned study not only highlights the varied geographical effects of migration related to higher education but also offers recommendations for policymakers. By adopting targeted policy interventions, the UK can address subregional disparities effectively. These policies should aim to improve local education, innovation capabilities, and employment opportunities. Additionally, aligning university curricula with employer needs and investing in infrastructure are key steps. Such efforts are not just economic policies – they are crucial for achieving the broader goal of levelling up the country and addressing social inequalities.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    The analysis is interesting but not surprising. Major cities have been attracting more people for centuries and less attractive / desireable locations have seen populations decreasing.

    It seems to show the expected behaviour of a market economy, people move in greater numbers towards better paying jobs, particularly when they are in their twenties and thirties.

    Jobs are not created locally by new, incoming employers unless the market is distorted by subsidies from tax payers.

    Personally, I cannot see the need for any policy interventions. In a market economy there is always a need for movement. Tinkering via the policy changes suggested, generally fails to bring real rather than artifical economic development / regeneration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *