What Characteristics Influence the Retention/Migration Decisions of Birmingham Graduates?

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Anne Green and Kostas Kollydas provide a breakdown of the type of graduates that remain in the region after they complete their degrees.

The skills composition of the labour force plays a vital role in a region’s productivity, economic growth and innovation capabilities.

In this context, creating the conditions for retaining highly skilled university graduates in an area can improve its workforce skills base and contribute to regional convergence. This becomes more important considering that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated economic and welfare inequalities across the UK, while, in parallel, there is an increased policy interest in levelling up UK places.

To understand better the mechanisms that drive the mobility behaviour of highly educated people, it is important to shed light on the characteristics of graduates who stay in their area of study for work relative to those who choose to migrate to other places.

The Graduate Outcome Survey

The Graduate Outcomes Survey provides comprehensive information about the employment destinations of those graduates who responded to the Survey for the academic years 2017/18 and 2018/19.

Of the total number of UK-domiciled graduates (i.e. who lived in the UK before commencing their studies) of the five universities in Birmingham who were in employment 15 months after completing their course, 53.1% stayed in the West Midlands for work (see the graph below). The rest of Birmingham graduates (46.9%) moved to other UK regions (or outside the UK), predominantly to London (14.3%), the South East (7.2%) and the East Midlands (5.8%).

Distribution of new graduate workers by region of workplace and university attended (in grouped form)

Source: Own elaboration using pooled data from the Graduate Outcomes Survey (Higher Education Statistics Agency), 2017/18-2018/19. Note: The graph presents the distribution of higher education graduates in employment 15 months after finishing their course across workplace regions. The sample comprises only UK-domiciled people (i.e., those who lived in the UK before commencing their studies). The “universities in Birmingham” are the University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University, Aston University, University College Birmingham, and Newman University.
The West Midlands

By focusing on the metropolitan West Midlands County (i.e. the 7-Met area), the corresponding graduate retention rate stands at 44% (on average for both academic years). Interestingly, the table below (table 1) reveals that the average characteristics of graduates of the five universities in Birmingham who work in the 7-Met area differ markedly from those who left Birmingham to access jobs elsewhere in the UK or in other countries.


More specifically, women are more likely than men to stay in the 7-Met area for work. In particular, females comprise 65.2% of the 7-Met area workforce sample compared to 58.6% of the Birmingham graduates who migrated to other areas for work. A key factor here could be unequal interregional occupation opportunities between genders, particularly at the beginning of graduates’ careers.


Moreover, the likelihood of staying locally for work is lower for younger graduates (aged 24 years and under), who account for 60.4% of the Birmingham graduates employed in the 7-Met area relative to nearly 70% of those who migrated elsewhere for work. Likewise, first-degree holders exhibit a lower propensity to stay in the 7-Met area for employment than those with other qualification levels.


There are substantial ethnic differences between these two groups of graduates. For example, of the total number of Pakistani and Bangladeshi graduates who studied in Birmingham, 73% remained in the 7-Met area after finishing their course. As a corollary, they comprise 17.2% of the Birmingham graduates who work in the 7-Met area, which is 12.3 percentage points higher than the respective share of those who found a job in other areas (4.9%).

Some likely explanations for this pattern relate to the concentration of specific ethnic minorities in the West Midlands, their lower average socio-economic and educational background, and cultural attitudes to long-distance moves. Indeed, graduates with parents in highly skilled employment (i.e., holding managerial/professional jobs) are more likely than others to be geographically mobile. In a similar vein, academic performance is negatively correlated with the probability of staying in the location of study, as Birmingham graduates with a first-class or upper second-class degree have a greater chance of relocating to other regions/countries for employment.

Degree Theme

The probability of staying local is considerably higher for Birmingham graduates with a degree in Arts, Humanities, and Education than those with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and LEM (Law, Economics and Management) qualifications. Finally, the Public Admin, Education and Health sectors in the 7-Met area absorb a remarkably large number of Birmingham graduates (57.9%) relative to those who move to other locations (41.6%). The latter results are attributable to different occupation opportunities across subjects of study and sectors emanating from the industrial structure in the 7-Met area.

Increasing graduate retention in the West Midlands could be achieved by improving the opportunities in sectors with auspicious growth outlooks that are adaptive to future skills needs. In this context, investing in growing sectors (such as advanced manufacturing, life sciences, low-carbon, high-tech and digital industries) can create good jobs in the West Midlands, thus both helping to retain and attract university-educated talent to the area.

Table One:

Average characteristics of graduates of universities in Birmingham by area of employment (7-Met area versus other areas)
Variable Other areas (%) 7-Met area (%) Difference
Women 58.6 65.2 -6.6
Men 41.4 34.8 6.6
Age group
Under 21 2.9 3.2 -0.3
21-24 67.0 57.2 9.8
25-29 12.3 16.8 -4.5
30-39 8.4 13.2 -4.8
40-49 6.2 6.9 -0.7
50 and over 3.2 2.7 0.5
White 70.6 55.8 14.8
Black Caribbean 1.9 4.2 -2.3
Black African 5.6 5.9 -0.3
Other Black 0.3 0.4 -0.1
Indian 9.0 8.5 0.5
Pakistani 3.7 13.1 -9.4
Bangladeshi 1.2 4.1 -2.9
Chinese 0.9 0.8 0.1
Other Asian 1.9 1.8 0.1
Mixed 4.1 4.2 -0.1
Other ethnic group 0.7 1.2 -0.5
Socio-economic background (parental occupation)
Managerial/Professional occupation 62.0 44.9 17.1
Other (including long-term unemployed) 38.0 55.1 -17.1
Subject area of study
STEM 43.5 41.6 1.9
LEM 23.8 19.0 4.8
Other 20.0 28.4 -8.4
Combined degree 12.7 11.1 1.6
Level of qualification
Postgraduate (research) 3.1 3.2 -0.1
Postgraduate (taught) 25.9 29.2 -3.3
First degree 65.5 60.1 5.4
Other undergraduate 5.5 7.5 -2.0
Class of first degree
First class / Upper-second class honours 88.0 80.0 8.0
Other degree class 12.0 20.0 -8.0
Industry sector (grouped form)
Energy and water 1.6 0.5 1.1
Manufacturing 6.6 3.3 3.3
Construction 1.6 1.8 -0.2
Distribution, hotels and restaurants 13.9 12.3 1.6
Transport and communication 9.4 4.6 4.8
Banking and finance 20.4 16.0 4.4
Public admin, education and health 41.6 57.9 -16.3
Other services 4.8 3.6 1.2
Observations 9,370 7,360  

The parental occupation applies only to young graduates (i.e., those aged 20 or less at the time of entry to higher education).

The figures for the “Agriculture, forestry and fishing” industry sectors are not reported because of their small sample size. STEM subjects comprise “Physical sciences”, “Mathematical sciences”, “Computer science”, “Biological sciences”, “Veterinary science”, “Engineering & technology”, “Agriculture & related subjects”, and “Architecture, building & planning”. LEM subjects refer to “Law”, “Business & administrative studies”, and “Social studies”. Other subjects include “Mass communications & documentation”, “Languages”, “Historical & philosophical studies”, “Creative arts & design”, and “Education”. The “combined” subjects relate to joint degrees in more than one subject code (e.g., “BSc in Economics & Mathematics”).

You can find out more about Labour Markets, Graduate Retention and Skills on our website.

This blog was written by Anne Green, Professor of Regional Economic Development and Dr Kostas Kollydas, Research Fellow at City-REDI  / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI, WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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