What can the West Midlands do to attract more graduates?

7 min read

Universities are one of the West Midlands’ most important assets. The University of Birmingham and University of Warwick sit in the top 20 of The Times list of best UK universities in 2019, whilst Aston is ranked amongst the top 50 newer higher education institutions in the world. 

Universities also make a significant contribution to economic growth in the region. Research from Universities UK finds that the 12 higher education providers in the West Midlands generate over 55,000 jobs and contribute almost £3bn to the local economy, equivalent to around 3% of the region’s total GVA. 

However, the success of the West Midlands’ universities is in contrast with the challenges faced by the region in up-skilling its population. As a 2018 report by the Centre for Cities found, the region’s largest cities perform poorly on skill levels in comparison with the rest of the UK. Birmingham has the highest share of people with no qualifications of any UK city, and a lower share of people with degree-level qualifications than the national average.

Nationally, the percentage of adults with no formal qualifications has steadily declined to 8% in recent years, but in the West Midlands this figure remains stubbornly high at 16%. West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has rightly identified improving skill levels as his biggest priority, with the Combined Authority pushing for more control over the skills budget for students and apprentices aged 19 and above. 

Ensuring more graduates from West Midlands universities stay in the region is a particular challenge. Birmingham performs strongly in the Centre for Cities retention rankings, standing sixth in the percentage of students staying on in the city after their finals. However, outside the region’s largest city, the picture is different. Coventry and Wolverhampton struggle to retain local graduates and to attract young, highly educated professionals from elsewhere to move to the area. Overall, the West Midlands retains under one fifth of its graduates, according to research by Grant Thornton.

As the class of 2019 complete their final exams, how can we ensure they see the West Midlands as the region to put down roots and progress in their chosen career? 

Major steps have been made in recent years to improve the appeal of the West Midlands to young people seeking good quality jobs and opportunities, with many graduates increasingly looking beyond the lure of London due to the often prohibitively high cost of living in the capital. However, with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and Mayor taking greater control of skills policy in the region, there is potential to do much more to close the skills gap with the rest of the UK. 

The most significant factor driving graduate retention - and in attracting new graduates - is the number and quality of job opportunities available. A key reason so many graduates move to London soon after finishing university is the potential to find a job with good opportunities for progression, development and pay. Whilst the West Midlands, particularly Birmingham, has made strong progress in attracting major employers in recent years, more could be done to link graduate retention with the WMCA Strategic Economic Plan, which was released last year.

Advanced manufacturing, for example, is correctly identified as crucial to the region’s future economic prosperity, with the area home to some of the UK’s biggest engineering, automobile and aerospace firms. Closer collaboration between universities and major employers could see students explore opportunities with the likes of FANUC UK in Coventry, which is developing a new generation of robots for use in industrial manufacturing. 

Similarly, West Midlands universities should seek to prepare students for future careers in other growing sectors in the region, such as creative and digital, medical and life sciences, and green technology. The Midlands Innovation Partnership, a research collaboration incorporating Midlands universities such as the University of Birmingham, Warwick and Aston, is an example of the higher education sector working closely with industry to drive improvement in skills. Working together, these universities have secured significant research funding to address issues in innovative sectors such as health data. 

Midlands universities must also be ready to grasp the opportunities that will be provided by the arrival of HS2. The new line will bring journey times between Birmingham and London down to just 49 minutes when it opens in 2026, and already the city is experiencing a regeneration boom as it prepares for this transformational development. There is huge potential for the creation of thousands of high-skilled, quality jobs, which graduates of West Midlands universities and specialist HE providers such as the National College for High Speed Rail, are well placed to take advantage of.

The West Midlands has much to offer a young graduate seeking their first proper job and a place to build their career. The region provides excellent quality of life and real opportunities in some of the UK’s fastest growing sectors. However, there is a perception amongst many that London is the only destination for ambitious young people. With the Mayor and West Midlands Combined Authority holding new powers over skills and education, and some of the country’s most successful universities, there is real potential to change how the region is viewed.