In the Limelight 

2nd February 2018

Alison Cowie looks as the issue of ‘brain drain’ among graduates from North East universities and asks what can be done to stem the leak?

The economic performance of any UK city, increasingly, depends on the skills of its residents. As such, the major conurbations of the North East are part of an ongoing battle to retain as many of their highly-skilled workers as possible.

Traditionally, the North East has suffered from a ‘brain drain’ effect, particularly among graduates who, after gaining a degree at one of the local universities, have opted to leave the region to embark on their career elsewhere.

In the May 2017 CentreforCities report – Great British Brain Drain: An Analysis of Migration to and From Newcastle – it shows that between 2009-2015, Newcastle benefited from a large net inflow of young people (16-21-year-olds) into the city but that this subsequently turned to a net outflow as graduates left the city and moved around the country for work.

Most graduates, unsurprisingly, were attracted to London (17 per cent of leavers) but this migration – along with that from other UK regions – has contributed to an ‘overheating’ economy in the capital, resulting in massive pressures on housing and transport.

It should be said, though, that the CentreforCities report does reveal that Newcastle’s 36 per cent graduate retention rate does make it the ninth highest in the UK; compare this with Chatham and Exeter, which retained only 12 per cent and 13 per cent between 2009-2015.

However, Newcastle does still lags behind graduate retention rates of London (77 per cent) and Manchester (51 per cent), indicating that there’s room for improvement.

So, with a direct impact on the local economic performance at stake, what more can be done to improve graduate retention rates across the North East?

According to Professor Jane Turner, pro vice-chancellor (enterprise and business engagement) at Teesside University, the role of the university is essential for improving retention rates in the Tees Valley.

“We need to get the message across – particularly to those students from outside the area who choose to study at Teesside – that the Tees Valley is a great place to live and work. We must also show them the clear career pathways that are open to them by staying in the area.”

Prof Turner also reveals that the university has been working with businesses to show them the value graduates can bring.

“Over the last two years we’ve really ramped up our connections with local employers so that they understand the benefits graduates can bring to an organisation,” she says. “We’re also working with Reed Recruitment to increase the level of graduate level jobs in the area and results are starting to show in terms of the numbers available.”

Promoting entrepreneurship as a legitimate career path is another important area for Teesside University. It runs Teesside Launchpad to support the fledgling entrepreneurial community and provides incubator space for enterprises to develop their businesses ideas.

Another important focus, Prof Turner reveals, is improving the management capability across the Tees Valley.

“We know that people leave managers, not necessarily the organisations, and so Teesside University wants to improve leadership skills so that, hopefully, this will impact more people’s decision to stay in the region.”

Prof Turner believes that ongoing devolution in the Tees Valley – which promises more local decision making – will make an impact on graduate retention levels.

“The Combined Authority’s Skills Strategy is about to be launched and Teesside University has had a major impact into that.

“A key stand of the strategy is around skills, how we recognise the value of graduates and how we can support those with entrepreneurial leanings.

“Another area the mayor has control over is housing and if we can build more accommodation for graduates, this will help retain more students, as well as attract others from out of the area,” she adds.

Michelle Rainbow, skills director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), echoes Professor Turner’s sentiment that the role of universities is crucial for improving graduate retention.

She reveals: “The North East LEP worked with the four local universities [Newcastle, Northumbria, Durham and Sunderland] to run a campaign in November and December 2017, called Live, Work and Stay. The response was amazing and heard many compelling stories from people who are proud that they live and work in the North East.

“We’re now looking at ways the LEP and the universities can work more closely together and are developing a pilot that is focused on careers support guidance.”

Michelle also calls for more local businesses to work with universities to provide opportunities for students.

“By offering summer internships and work placements to university students, businesses are able to cherry-pick the best talent. This not only helps the businesses to look after their own skills pipeline but they also encourage loyalty among graduates.”

She also highlights advancements in technology as an opportunity for graduates to gain access to national and international work without necessarily having to leave the region.

“With remote working nowadays, graduates can work for major corporates – on global projects – but still live in the North East and benefit from the great standard of living we offer,” she says.

And so while the North East still has more work to do to bring graduate retention rates in line with cities such as London and Manchester, it seems that an increased focus by universities, businesses and local economic agencies is helping to change perceptions and show skilled young people that they can take their first steps to a successful career here in the North East.

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