Like thousands of students across the country, Jodie McGregor, a final year food and nutrition student at Teesside University, has just finished submitting everything she needs to graduate virtually. But she doesn’t have time to bemoan what feels like an “abrupt end” to her degree, because she has also used the coronavirus lockdown to launch an online breakfast delivery business in Middlesbrough.
For 25 year-old McGregor, My Breakfast Box, which has been supplying healthy “survival bundles” to customers, is about more than just making money. It is about making sure she can stay up north after graduation.
“I worked in London as a personal trainer before university, so I’ve done the busy London thing,” she says. “But there’s nothing better than Yorkshire to me.”
She started her business last year in the university’s business incubator space, supplying her own eco-friendly granola to farm shops, but now runs a more tech-focused food shopping venture from her first external “grown up” premises. She says that she might have struggled to find affordable business space in the south, or the community networks she has relied on.
“All the exciting things happening in Middlesbrough and all the support I’ve found have made me feel very proud, and determined to keep the business here,” she says.
Traditionally, northern universities see a flood of graduates surging down to London and the south-east as soon as they leave. In 2016 a Centre for Cities report found that almost a quarter of all students from the past three years were working in London within six months of graduating. This figure rose to nearly 40% for first class or 2.1 graduates from Russell Group universities.
But now coronavirus has railroaded companies into what could become a remote working revolution, many of these universities are hoping the costly and crowded capital may lose some of its appeal.
Ian Dunn, provost at Coventry University, is cautiously optimistic that the virus might help stem the brain drain and inject more young talent into the regions. “It would fit with a local student activist movement that is objecting quite strongly to how London-focused the country has become,” he notes.
But ultimately “the driver will be whether or not the roles continue outside London”, he admits. He worries that companies might revert to their old office-based practices when restrictions ease. And he says it is too early to assess the economic damage to the region’s previously thriving engineering industry. Coventry’s biggest employer, Jaguar Landrover, is cutting more than 1,000 UK agency staff after losing £500m in three months.
However, Dunn argues that in a depressed employment market, graduates may be more likely to follow McGregor’s example and strike out alone. “We are seeing a strong demand for launching start-ups,” he says. “Students often want to start local lifestyle type companies, but we are also seeing growth in social enterprises.”
Chester University graduate Gillian Seale, who lives on the Wirral in Merseyside and is determined to stay there, has set up a non-profit company called Tailored Yarn. Rather than a textiles business, she writes stories to help children deal with losing a relative, weaving memories of the person into the narrative. She is currently writing a book of memories for the families of NHS workers who have died during the pandemic.
Seale went back to university at 35 to study psychology, after years of doing a job in accountancy that she didn’t enjoy. “I had to study locally as I’m a single mum with three kids and their dad lives round the corner,” she explains. Like many northern graduates, lockdown has reinforced her passion for where she lives. “I’m so happy here and I wouldn’t want to move.”
In contrast Alex Hall, who graduated from the University of York three years ago, sees ending up working back at home near Newcastle as more of a happy accident. Hall, who is 24 and a bid-writer for engineering company Costain, was working near London and living in Reading when the virus hit.
When she learned that she would be working remotely Hall rushed home to stay with her family. “I haven’t spent this long up north since my university holidays and it’s been really nice,” she says.
She understands now why new graduates might want to start their careers in the north instead. “It’s much cheaper. If you could access a higher southern salary, and you’ve still got a network of friends up here, why wouldn’t you?” she says.
Nonetheless universities are under no illusions that this year’s graduates are exiting into an uncertain world. Jane McAllister, employability manager for the faculty of arts design and media at Birmingham City University, says her graduates are being hit with a double whammy. Not only are the arts facing their own crises as a result of lockdown, but many of the service industry jobs that freelance graduates would have used to supplement their income have also disappeared.
“We are trying to suggest different options,” she says. “For example they might take on a job in the police to support their art career. We are trying to point graduates to areas where there is growth.”
McAllister says that most graduates will want to stay in the region. “There is a lot of positivity and it is our job to give them a plan. But it may take them a lot longer to make the connections and get where they want to be.”
Prof Jane Turner, pro vice-chancellor for enterprise and business engagement at Teesside University, says nearly three-quarters of their graduates typically stay in the region. The university’s focus has been on making sure they can access graduate-level jobs locally when they leave. Teesside recently hired consultants from a recruitment company to train their careers staff so they understand better what businesses want from graduates.
The university is currently lobbying government for £500,000 funding to pay for 125 internships “to help boost local companies and keep graduates off unemployment benefits”.
Teesside offers incubator space for graduates to come back and start companies up to five years after they graduate. As well as online recruitment fairs, the university runs sessions where employers give advice, plus resilience training and mental health support if they are finding the job hunt demoralising.
“The Tees Valley has had a lot of economic shocks and takes a real knocking, but there is so much talent here,” she says. “For the fees students are paying we have a moral duty to ensure they get a graduate-level job.”