There’s no such thing as the national graduate labour market

Certain assumptions lie at the heart of higher education policy. Let’s look at how students are expected to navigate their way in and out of universities. They are expected to consult literature, metrics, league tables and so forth to make their choice of institution from the wide range of universities in the UK.

Once they get there, they’ll live near to the institution, most likely first in halls of residence and then probably later in private rented accommodation.  On leaving it is assumed that they’ll look around the country for the job that suits them – which is why we have salary metrics, which advantage institutions that send graduates to London.

This vision of the way students and graduates make their choices has, at its heart, one very large assumption – that our student body is largely a highly mobile cohort that moves away for study and then moves again on graduation to wherever it is that the jobs are, commonly London.

The rhetoric often goes further with discussions of “the global graduate” and the skills required to thrive in the “global marketplace”. This assumption is (largely unconsciously) based on a particular idea of how rational careers decisions are made based on maximising perceived value, and the only real problem with it is that it is wrong.

Rhetoric and reality

Only 18 per cent of graduates from 2017 had made this journey; leaving home to a new institution away from their original domicile, and then leaving again to somewhere new to work. Over 40 per cent of them went to work in London and most of the rest went to one of the larger UK cities; Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow. This is far from the typical graduate experience.

More than half (58 per cent) of graduates went to work in the region they studied in and 69 per cent went to work in the region they were originally domiciled – that’s because 45 per cent of graduates stayed in the same region throughout.

Not for them the league table agenda, it doesn’t apply. They go to their local institution and they stay close by to work.

This is much the most common experience for students, and the long term trends suggest that this will be how the majority of UK students experience higher education.  For most students and graduates, rational careers decisions include a strong element of place, which is absent from the usual models of how students and graduates are “supposed” to behave.

This has profound implications for the whole of higher education – from the metrics agenda, through questions of social mobility, to the financial models underpinning halls of residence. But it particularly impacts student support and careers and employability provision.

The dominant literature on careers development is blind to questions of place and tends to assume a level of career mobility that is, in practise, absent for much of the graduate population.

Local labour markets

One particularly important effect of this practical absence of geographic mobility for most graduates is that the idea of a “UK graduate labour market” should be shelved. This entity does not, in any practical sense, exist.

The UK consists of a series of local and regional labour markets (in many cases driven by the extent of transport links) that have their own character, and in many cases do not overlap in any meaningful way.

The Welsh or southern English graduate labour market is largely irrelevant to most graduates in Scotland. They are never going to go there. A graduate from Plymouth is very unlikely to seek work in Leeds unless they are one of the very small number of graduates who went to university there. And although London is much the largest labour market in the UK, most graduates will never work there and the majority who go to work in London are originally from the city, and most of the rest come from the neighbouring regions of the East and South East. Even our national melting pot is largely for local graduates.

To best serve our students and graduates – and to better engage locally- we need a renewed focus on local labour markets;  the jobs markets that are most relevant to an institution’s graduates.

Many institutions that are effective in employability already have this kind of focus built in –  I have seen many excellent examples of how local engagement can have a great impact, from the University of Northampton’s laser-like focus on its regional jobs markets to Sheffield’s impressive RISE project – but there is still a great deal more we can do.

One thing HECSU Prospects is working on is much more effective, local labour market information with the launch of a What do graduates do? regional publication. Arguably even this could be more granular – I certainly accept that there is a question about how relevant Liverpool’s labour market is to a student from Carlisle, for example. But this is the first step in a longer journey to better understanding local challenges and to helping universities adapt to the changes in student cohorts and their particular needs.

8 responses to “There’s no such thing as the national graduate labour market

  1. Thanks Charlie, another great debunking of something that really should be better understood! Add this to our Microbis employment insights (thanks for those), and most of our courses are shooting arrows at a target that no longer exists by and large!

  2. Thanks Charlie – this certainly chimes with all we hear at Gradsouthwest.com when talking to students in our region about where they want to work – which is normally in the region.

  3. The data presented here is consistent with a relative fall in graduate inter regional mobility but does not comment on causes or assess whether or not it is a problem. It also does not follow that a fall in mobility is evidence of the lack of a national market for graduates.

    If Universities are acting as regional growth poles, graduates may very well be responding to market signals. It is just that jobs growth is strong in their home areas and so they react to this by taking advantage of opportunities in places already familiar to them.

    Evidence for a failing national graduate market would be the emergence of regional productivity and pay gaps. If these exist and graduate mobility is doing nothing to close them, then the premise of the article may be right. This could well be the case but Charlie does not present evidence that it is in fact so.

  4. Would be useful to include some analysis of how this impacts on part time and distance learners and the metrics for the institutions they attend.

  5. Yes Andy, and it’s possible that those targets have not, in any practical sense, existed for some time.

  6. Hi Deborah, nice to hear from you again. I do have Gradsouthwest in mind a good deal when I think about this kind of issue as the challenges your region faces are at once specific but also instructive for a lot of other parts of the country. There’s a lot of practise we could all share to meet this kind of challenge.

  7. Bradbury, very difficult to do all you’re asking for within the constraints of a word limit, and the purpose of the article is to flag work we’ve just done on regional labour markets – and why we have done that.

    As it happens there are regional pay gaps – both between regions and even within them. But in practical terms my role is to try to ensure that careers and guidance professionals are equipped with the best information that they can get to help their students and everything tells us that national level pictures are not as useful for all but a small minority of highly mobile students (for whom there is, technically a national labour market; this group are ready and willing to travel to get the job they want). A more local picture – which can often look quite different to a national level picture – is much more relevant and valuable to them.

  8. Hello Nicola, your sector is very important but trying to give an overall picture here. It would be another (interesting, worthwhile) article to examine specific institutional groups. OU is rather hard to do with the data we have!

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