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How to make a city sticky for graduates

Forget the sticky campus - Adele Browne on what could make a city sticky for graduates
This article is more than 4 years old

Adele Browne is Head of Careers and Employability at De Montfort University. 

Like many university cities, Leicester is having a close look at its attractiveness as a place for graduates to stay and work.

The benefits of establishing stronger graduate labour markets in hubs around the country seem compelling – regions will be enriched as knowledge centres through increased interplay of research, enterprise and graduate talent, businesses will see greater access to skills through robust graduate pipelines, and graduates will be better served to identify and transition into stimulating jobs with progression opportunities.

Graduate retention strategies concern high skills actualisation in the local labour market, aiming to realise the graduate premium for both the local economy and the individuals concerned. As universities ignite the rocket boosters under fresh projects to realise these benefits, early dissection of data is key.

Statutory data sets allow institutions to examine the past migration patterns of their students and graduates and the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) has produced useful categories for breaking these down. In 2016, 45% of all graduates were “loyals”, who came from, went to university and went on to work in the same place.

A further 24% were “returners”, who moved away for university but back home again for work. “Stayers”, who moved away for university and stayed there for work, made up 13%. The final group, at 18%, were “incomers” – graduates who moved into a new place for work, having grown up and studied elsewhere.

Universities’ most immediate opportunity to increase graduate retention is to influence their likely loyals and potential stayers to progress into local high skilled work.

Student views

A new partnership project between Leicester City Council, De Montfort University and the University of Leicester has gathered students’ views on whether they would, or would not, want to stay and work in Leicester. The “Leicester Student Voice” event attracted 120 students of whom 84 were UK domiciled but not originally from Leicester.

These represent a portion of Leicester’s potential “stayers”, who, based on HECSU’s national analysis, would be much more likely than average to be in high skilled employment six months after graduation, and whose numbers tend to increase as a local economy gets stronger. Stayers are of high interest both to support strong institutional graduate outcomes scores and as barometers for the net success of local retention strategies.

Our research with these 84 potential stayers has highlighted a number of challenges particular to Leicester, but also produced findings of wider resonance for the sector. To start with, many of the students were found to have explored very little beyond the tight circle of the city centre.

From an employment perspective they could name a few larger employers with a central presence but were unaware of those based in business parks and Leicester’s surrounding towns. Most did not refer to the 99.6% of micro, small and medium sized businesses that make up Leicester and Leicestershire”s business base. Students’ experiences of casual part-time work in the city seemed to compound an impression that professional and decently paid jobs for graduates do not exist locally.

Fearful for the future

The students’ experiences struggling financially with living away from home had made them fearful of trying to live independently as new graduates. Some deemed it “impossible”. They could not envisage how they could successfully achieve the transition from student to graduate in their university city, taking into account the financial, practical and psychosocial hurdles to overcome.

Their experience of student housing had had a particularly negative effect on their affiliation with the city due to struggling with costs, bad relationships with landlords, feeling ripped off, feeling unsafe and being segregated from “normal” citizens.

At the same time, the students widely vocalized they wanted more help to integrate with local people, events, activities and places from the start of university. In simple ways they would have valued a welcome pack, induction and excursions like those organised for international students.

They saw the organisation of social or sports activities led solely by their universities as creating unhelpful barriers and urged the introduction of community events for students led by city organisations. The students felt they had a lot to offer their university city if invited to get involved in local policy debate, citizens’ panels and social enterprise, and were eager to contribute their ideas to solve city problems.

Finally, students also, like other citizens, wanted good “liveability” – a city that is safe, welcoming and attractive, with green spaces and community facilities. In a mind mapping exercise, 70% of the students made reference to Leicester”s attractiveness and amenities, 70% talked about people, culture and community, 30% mentioned safety and 17% mentioned the importance of green spaces.

A stop off?

The students’ appetite for being part of the city, however, was expressed in the same breath as describing university as a “pitstop” on an onward journey. This apparent ambiguity possibly reflects the encouraging finding that the students were keen to stay in the city if they had the means to do so. One student summed this up as:

The reason is jobs – if you don”t have a graduate job lined up within two months of graduating, you’re not going to have any money, and you’re not going to physically be able to stay… how do you make people be able to afford to stay… we’d love to, I think most students would stay in Leicester, but they just can’t.”

This finding is aligned with national research that “access to employment” is a key determinant of graduate movements. However, a key learning for Leicester’s strategy is that this does not mean only the task of new job creation and inward investment. Instead there is a huge amount that can be done around profiling the graduate-level jobs that already exist.

An ongoing problem with perceptions of graduate jobs in the UK is that large corporate schemes are profiled as “the graduate jobs market”. This does a disservice to fertile employment relationships in the local business community and to the students whose aspirations are fogged by unrepresentative messaging. In 2017, for example, fewer than 7% of new UK graduates in high skilled jobs worked for the Times Top 100 graduate employers. Universities tend to exacerbate this imbalance by using large employer case studies in their marketing.

Going local

As well as promoting local businesses as employers, universities need to work with them to frame suitable roles as graduate jobs. Research by Access Generation with De Montfort University showed that of 200 East Midlands-based organisations in the manufacturing/engineering, food/drink and transport/logistics industries, 67% did not promote entry level roles on their website, 43% had no jobs page and 80% promoted themselves on a B2B footing but not as employers.

Dialogue with businesses is essential to understand their needs for technical versus transferable skills, to evidence the value of graduates and look at options for supporting early career upskilling.

There is also a need to increase students’ early contact with local micro, small and medium enterprises, allowing them to build their knowledge of the jobs available with a whole range of organisations. Students vitally need this first-hand experience to increase their commercial acumen and readiness to perform in the workplace. It is ever more indispensable for graduates to display an expected level of technical skills and professionalism in a marketplace busy with the lesser qualified.

The findings as a whole did not ignore that economic fundamentals, including housing and transport issues, pose challenges that need to be chipped away at over the longer term.

Notwithstanding these realities, the Leicester Student Voice study has produced 35 positive recommendations for change that give cause for optimism. Many of these involve relatively simple interventions that can be achieved by the city and universities working together well, such as the proposed welcome packs and excursions for UK students. It was found above all that social integration is a high priority for increasing students’ connections and confidence to stay. If this is combined also with increasing student-business interactions, universities can strengthen graduate employment outcomes by working very directly in their locality.

One response to “How to make a city sticky for graduates

  1. Hi Adele, and thanks for a great summary of some of the challenges related to local graduate retention and especially the key need to inform and link students with the possibilities within local labour markets. That just 7% of the 2017 graduating cohort were employed by Times Top 100 employers is such an important message to get across to students and academic faculty in all universities. This will encompass significant variation but even in institutions with high league table placings for graduate prospects the proportion is unlikely to be greater than a third.

    Here at the University of Sheffield we’ve reviewed our 2017 DLHE data alongside the current Times Top 100 and the Trendence Top 300 lists of graduate recruiters. We established that approximately a quarter of our employed graduates were with one of the Top 100, rising to about a third being employed by organisations in the Top 300 list (NB: With a sizeable medical faculty this includes a large number of graduates joining the NHS).

    This means that across all institutions, Russell Group included, a significant majority of our students who graduate into employment are joining smaller and medium sized companies. We have to get better at promoting these outcomes as being as positive as joining the bigger graduate schemes – different in some ways, better in some ways, at least as interesting and challenging, and often offering accelerated career development opportunities and a variety of experience that more than match some of the larger corporates.

    There are clearly many thousands of unheralded opportunities for graduates in smaller organisations – how we promote these to students is a key challenge. There are also many thousands of SMEs who haven’t yet appreciated the value of engaging students for placements or of recruiting graduates. Expanding local work experience, knowledge exchange and career options will, as you say Adele, help meet many of our civic engagement, student experience and graduate outcome goals, as well as supporting local upskilling and productivity growth, and enhancing social mobility. This has the potential to deliver win:win:win outcomes and impact.

    Most of us are putting effort into brokering and promoting these links but there is a lot more to be done to entice graduates to stick around and apply their knowledge and skills in local businesses and communities. I for one will be very interested to learn more about how you get on with the collaborative partnership approach in Leicester. Please keep us posted.

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