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Celebrating those who study local - and stay local

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Published on 30 July 2019

Sir David Bell
Sir David Bell

"Social mobility is not just about moving to richer areas

Credit where credit is due. With the Department for Education's recent publication of graduate's earnings' data by region, we saw a welcome example of ministers and officials responding positively to constructive comment from the sector. 

Usefully too, there is an invitation to participate in the next phase of thinking around the publication of institution-by-institution data. 

Much of the concern about the longitudinal educational outcomes – LEO - dataset has focused on the perceived unfairness of making unadjusted pay comparisons between universities in different parts of the country. Given the high-stakes nature of this information, contextualisation is obviously important.

Widening the debate

However, there is a wider debate to be had about social mobility and the experience of those graduates who choose to stay in their region after leaving university. 

Underpinning this is a very narrow definition of social mobility which centres on students – usually 18 year olds – from poorer areas having the opportunity to attend high-tariff institutions.

Moving away will always remain an important dimension of widening opportunity. However, it risks masking the crucially important work that more regionally-focused universities play in enhancing the life chances of their students. 

Underpinning that can be an arrogant assumption that some places are better than others – and not just for earnings – when it comes to living and working. Crucially, we must avoid thinking that geographical mobility is the same as social mobility.

Keeping it local

Two weeks ago, the University of Sunderland saw through its first cohort of nursing graduates. Every one of them has secured a nursing job in the city. Commensurate with the ‘commuter’ nature of the University, these nurses all live locally and vary in age – and worth remembering that many mature students (45% in Sunderland’s case), have family, work and life commitments that mean they can’t just get up and leave, even if they wanted to. 

Coming back to the nurses, without exception, they have improved their life chances significantly by acquiring a highly valued professional qualification. Yet, that appears to count for nothing when it comes to the social mobility metrics.

Or what about the teachers? 97% of our initial teacher education graduates stay in the north-east. It would be a disaster if they didn’t and so we need to welcome and endorse their commitment. Ditto those that study within the pharmaceutical sciences, over 70% of whom stay in the region and are central to high-value science and manufacturing.


Employment by occupation data for the 2017-18 period shows that 31% of people working in Sunderland are employed in professional/managerial roles, compared to 39% for the north-east region and 46% across Great Britain as a whole.

If post-Brexit Britain is to be a success, we need more people in places like Sunderland available to work in professional and managerial roles and not to think of themselves as failing to ‘get on’ if they stick around.

Better research

There is a real need for research into the rich social mobility experience of local students. At the moment, it is often anecdotal – if powerful – individual stories that we tell which enable us to make the case. We need to understand more about the life premium added, both for the individual and the community, if local graduates decide to stay local.

And this really matters. Fine talk about ‘rebalancing the economy’ will only really count for something when students feel pride in their area and don’t see attending the local university as their passport out.

Indeed, the very fact that Sunderland is opening a new medical school is precisely because the government has recognised that there are so-called ‘cold spots’ for doctor retention, not least in specialisms such as general practice and psychiatry. So, a very significant aim for us, as it is for the other new medical schools, is to keep our graduates in the city and region.

Minority sport

As someone who has had a highly mobile career in the UK and beyond, I might be accused of pulling up the ladder of opportunity in calling for local students to stay local. And worse, is there not something central to the concept of education that is about widening horizons that implies moving on and moving away?

Well, there might be and I would be the last person to deny others the right to choose where they live and what they do. However, and not for the first time, I do worry that many of those working in higher education – themselves highly mobile – assume that their lifestyle is the norm.

The life experiences of many senior politicians and policy makers also involves a high degree of mobility; a residential university; a move to London; if an MP, a constituency to which you have no other affiliation than having been selected to stand for parliament. But actually, all of that is a minority sport for the large majority of people in this country.

You don’t have to buy the whole citizens of somewhere/citizens of nowhere rhetoric to think that we have not paid enough attention to the value of going to university in the same place where you have been being born and brought up.

Of course, none of this is simple. I see the risk of mobility being the preserve of the wealthy, further exacerbating the divisions in our society.

So while the publication of the DfE data is very welcome, we should never assume that students who don’t move away from their home region have somehow limited their options.

Home, family, community, allegiance to place – these can be more important to many students than rootless ‘opportunities’ and imagined salary hikes. Such students will never fall into the trap of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Staying in the same place and make your life there. Some people might even call it commitment."

*This article originally appeared in Times Higher Education