UK higher education is pretty much unique in the perception that young people will move many miles from home to study.

It’s by no means always the case. In 2018-19 around 250,000 first years lived in provider-owned halls, compared with around 150,000 living at the home of their parent or guardian, and around 130,000 living in their own home. But the very existence of the term “commuter students” suggests that the idea of student life has not kept up with this reality. There’s still a sense that if you aren’t moving away from home, you are missing out on some ineffable right of passage

My colleague Jim Dickinson analysed William Whyte’s HEPI paper on residential HE last year. It is well worth re-reading. Here’s how Jim starts:

“If you care about working class communities – and I do – one of the things we have to accept is that what we do as a sector is destroy them. We take communities like mine – Walsall in the West Midlands – and like child catchers, steal from them their most talented children into our residential model of higher education. And they never return.”

Jim never went back to Walsall. I never went back to Stockton-on-Tees, where I grew up. We both moved on, to jobs and opportunities in different parts of the country. But would we have needed to move on to work anyway?

Moving on up

This morning’s report from the Social Mobility Commission uses ONS data to examine links between intra-UK migration, disadvantage, and social mobility. The headline findings back up our preconceptions about moving. More than half of those who move away from their home local authority have a degree, compared with a third who do not. Those who move away from home earn a third more, on average, and are more likely to end up with a highly skilled job.

This pretty much backs up Jim’s argument made in jest that if we are serious about social mobility we need a mechanism to move talented young people away from home. Those who stay in their home area do report a heightened sense of family and community connections, and greater well-being – but in a climate where “good jobs” and “good pay” seem to mean everything, this is scant consolation.

The SMC says “you should not have to move to prosper” – citing the possibilities of flexible and remote educational provision, and lockdown-style remote learning. But at the moment, in Walsall, Stockton and places like them, you really do need to move to get on.

Moving on out

But does this always work? In general, migration happens between places of similar deprivation levels – far from the idealised notion of young people moving from a “cold spot” to a university town. Those who do move tend to be from places at least as well off as the towns and cities they are heading to. There’s one simple explanation – the comparative cost of living – but we are left to speculate on causality. Higher salaries and higher living costs can be seen as a positive feedback loop, with the two moving up in unison. This makes it harder for people from a less advantaged background to break into professional life, but accentuates the rewards where it does happen.

Just 30 per cent of those from a background of routine and manual work who stayed in their home area ended up in higher managerial or professional jobs. Forty-seven percent of those who moved away had the same experience.

But that’s not to say those who moved were any happier. The report notes that “movers” were ten percentage points less likely to own their own home than stayers, and may initially experience isolation and loneliness. But “stayers” were likely to experience lower quality healthcare, worse educational opportunities, and a reduced range of social activities.

There’s ideas on how to deal with much of this, and the HE and FE sectors merit a “policy suggestion” – sorting out a “comprehensive, coherent, and flexible” local education throughout the UK. The hint is that collaboration may be more useful than competition, and work needs to be done on lowering the financial barriers for those who do move to study. We see ideas of “anchor institutions” fostering local identity, local authorities and employers gaining a better understanding of skills needs and how to meet them, investment in local infrastructure, and flexible or remote working.

Time to break free?

The Social Market Foundation used geography (at a lower tier local authority level) as a proxy and marker for a range of social mobility effects. This is backed up by some fascinating qualitative data – drawing on a range of interviewees from different backgrounds. As you would expect, work and education feature strongly among reasons to move, while family is a key reason to stay. But “quality of life” features on both sides of the equation – those who move are looking for an enhanced social and cultural life, and those who stay cited the ease of accessing work and housing, and social connections.

Moving is a risk. Those who stay tend to have children and mortgages at a younger age, and place a high value on proximity to family and friends. An existing job may offer more reliable income than a new (and possibly insecure) employment. For this reason financial support (be it an existing job offer, loans and grants, savings, or assistance from family members) was cited often as a facilitator of moving to a new area – and existing social connections in a new area are hugely helpful as sources of local knowledge and accommodation opportunities.

Younger people in more disadvantaged areas tended to know of only a few people who had moved away – and the perceived impact was a personal one, missing the company of friends and family members. They were likely to move straight into employment after school – some citing a negative personal or family experience of university as a factor behind this decision.

And there’s a hint of a “mover mindset” – those who leave their home area are more motivated by the actual work they do, those who stay more motivated by job security.

Directions of travel

I’d confess that I wasn’t previously aware of the existence of the internal migration estimates dataset, but as soon as I saw it I knew I needed to plot it! I’ve looked at data for the year ending June 2019, which is available at local authority area in England and Wales. By selecting a local authority in the filter at the bottom you can see where people are reckoned to have moved to (set up by default to look at those between 20 and 24):

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And from (set up by default to look at those between 20 and 24):

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Rather than including the various measures of deprivation or participation as the SMF report did, I’ve simply left you to use your existing perceptions and prejudices to understand how internal migration is working in England and Wales. One thing that struck me is that outflows and inflows correlate – areas that see young people mainly move to neighbouring areas also see the same effect for incoming migration, whereas other places (often university towns) have a much more substantial connection to a wider range of places.

You can see, as the SMC did, evidence of areas of low deprivation (on any scale you can think of) seeing migration to and from similar areas. Unlike my presentation of the underlying data above, these are sophisticated model-driven analyses, and although the local effect is clearly a strong one (especially in high deprivation areas) some of the other effects are stronger.

One interesting effect can be seen at figure 8 in the report, where you can see the flow towards “business, education, and heritage centres” at age 20-24. We see elements of this on my map – look out for dark dots in Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Cardiff… – but it brings home how, if a person is going to move, university age is the time it is likely to happen.

If you are wondering why the map shows fractions of moves, you are seeing the impact of ONS weighting methodologies. You can read more about it – including the significant modifications based on the difficulty of obtaining reliable location data from recent graduates, here

A dilemma remains

So should we be encouraging more young people to move to university, or “leveling up” deprived areas? This was an academic question a couple of years ago, but has recently – in England at least – become incredibly politicised. Universities, and the areas that surround them, have benefited from the influx of talented young people from around the UK – and young people have benefited from living and working in a comparatively cosmopolitan and affluent area. But the places these young people leave behind have not benefited at all.

Universities have never had an answer to this charge. Measures to widen access and participation have helped more people from deprived areas benefit from higher education, and civic initiatives have benefited the locality of the university. But a visible impact on deprived areas away from the campus is rare.

As the SMC suggests, moving is strongly correlated with socio-economic background. Even movers from more deprived areas are likely to have better educated parents in better paid roles. These movers get better paid jobs (at the risk of a marginally lower likelihood of employment if they are moving from a more deprived area) – motivation is a factor, but a far less prominent one than background.

Geographic inequalities drive cultural and social inequalities. Where someone is born has a huge impact on the course of their life, and on the advantage they are able to take of educational and employment opportunities. A part of the answer will be in, as the government is doing, establishing alternative routes to skilled work. But another requirement is being able to convince skilled workers to live in areas they may otherwise reject.

One response to “Moving out of somewhere, moving on to nowhere?

  1. A really interesting analysis David. Around two decades ago I wrote a chapter which included commentary on what I would probably now call the ‘student accommodation premium’. In short – while the status of ‘student’ per se does not necessarily provide young people with access to a privileged set of transitions, those who can move away from home to study have access to a niche housing market. This market is not so readily available to others seeking to move or leave home at the age of 18-21. Such ‘traditional’ students also then have opportunities to build the social (and often cultural) capital that joining a new network of friends offers, and learn the skills with which to keep moving and navigate rented and shared housing markets successfully as they do so.

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