Work from home could help the UK to level up

At university, a lecturer once asked my year of English undergraduates how many of us intended to stay in Newcastle after our degree. From the hundred or so students in front of him, only half a dozen hands went up.

With plans to study for a masters elsewhere, I was not among them, although I wished — and still do — that I could stay in the city. But even without this excuse, I would be kidding myself to think my hand would have been up. Job prospects and, more importantly, career progression, are the main considerations for where the majority of graduates choose to live after university. And so we have the meagre response to my lecturer’s question, and what is known as the “brain drain” faced by UK cities where a disproportionate number of high-achieving graduates flock to London.

According to a 2016 report by the UK think-tank Centre for Cities, 38 per cent of those with a first or second class degree from a Russell Group university move to the capital after their studies. While some of that is driven by students who grew up or studied in London, of all graduates that moved to a different city after university, 22 per cent went to the capital. The disproportionate number of top universities in London and the south of England also acts as a regional magnet. Of those who moved away from home for university and then again to another city for work, 40 per cent ended up in London.

In recent weeks, my thoughts have returned to that show of hands in the lecture hall. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted much talk about a potential work from home revolution, with regional or London hubs to provide the “water-cooler” moments many need.

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If this were to happen, partially untangling access to jobs from geography, more graduates who were attracted to a regional city for university might feel encouraged to stick around for a job afterwards. This could help assuage the UK’s regional inequality crisis. Researchers at EY predicted this would worsen over the next three years — even before the pandemic exacerbated the situation and policies to “level up” were derailed by firefighting budgets.

“If you’ve got a highly skilled workforce, you’re going to be able to attract more investment for the region,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at Centre for Cities and co-author of its Great British Brain Drain report. “Moving those jobs from one part of the country to another you would think would have an impact on local services as well — cafés, shops, restaurants — which would benefit employment in the area.”

As well as partly dismantling the costs and connections which prevent many from accessing London’s job market, the presence of more graduates in university cities could spark innovation and the creation of local sector hubs, rather than just the parcelling out of work still anchored in London. In Manchester, where 33 per cent of graduates who moved there to study stayed for work, the young cohort has helped turn the city into a creative and digital hotspot rivalling the south-east. The “Silicon Fen” that grew up around Cambridge is now a magnet in its own right.

And the benefits of retaining more graduates would not just be economic. Spreading people around the UK and mixing the proportion of white- and blue-collar workers could aid social cohesion. People could choose to live closer to family and friends, in cities where their quality of life would be higher, improving the situation for those in the overcrowded capital.

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There are many that could not or would not want to work outside of London. Given that the technology to do so has been around for two decades, Mr Swinney is sceptical of how many would take up the opportunity. But regional hubs, or rotations in London that provide employees with accommodation, could be an answer to this. Lockdown reminds us how fast we can adapt.

If businesses not only accepted but incentivised this opportunity, it might allow more people to raise their hand the next time a lecturer poses the question to his students. Rather than visiting Newcastle once a year and driving over the Tyne bridge with a rush of love and longing, I might be writing this from a café nestled at its granite feet.

Twitter: @antoniacundy



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