Leeds is one of the most vibrant and economically diverse cities in the UK. We can boast strong tech and manufacturing sectors, we’re (depending on which dataset you believe) either second or third nationally as a centre for key professions like law and finance, we have a very wide range of top-class cultural institutions and culture-facing businesses, and city retail is as varied and robust as can be reasonably expected in these times.
Leeds is also one of the UK’s main University cities. We have no less three Universities: Leeds University, a key member of the Russell Group with an international-level research and teaching reputation; Leeds Met, one of country’s foremost and best-performing former Polys; and Leeds Trinity, ramping up as a new University and already gaining some kudos. Our Universities draw students from across the country and around the globe, many of whom find such a positive experience here that they’d love to make the Leeds area a permanent home.
But London still seems to steal a march on us in graduate employment. Setting aside the graduate programmes of big national and international employers, opportunities to get a foot in the door seem to be too thin on the ground to provide a route for everyone who might want to start their working life in our city, especially in the major professions. Perhaps there’s an inevitability about this; after all, the reality is that London is a much larger city, with a higher concentration of graduate employers able to offer entry-level jobs, internships and other career-entry roles. The ‘brain drain’ debate is a venerable one, too, though it’s not necessarily accurate to see this stemming from any supposed intrinsic characteristics of the economy in the capital.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that acquiescing to current trends in the graduate economy isn’t what we want to do. Allowing the greatest share of the graduate employment to be hothoused down in London and picking up a much lesser portion of available talent shouldn’t be a default foundation for future strategy. The Milburn reports on graduate social mobility and access to HE have provided a stark case for major change in the graduate economy, after all.
How, then, do we provide quality opportunities for graduates here in north, and in our city in particular? How to we reinforce the strategic professions, the creative industries, science and tech, without over-reliance on retail management or call centres to provide graduate jobs? How do we ensure that we have the kind of diverse, mixed, knowledge-based economy we know we need to compete in future, and help our neighbours get a good share of pie too? It seems like a pretty big question, doesn’t it?
And it’s one we need to address on behalf of the whole region; if a city like ours is losing out to London, what about smaller regional cities and towns, like Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield and Rotherham? Until Leeds can take a leading role in creating a more distributed national graduate economy, some of the claims to fame and prosperity we take such pride in may well ring a little more hollow than we would like.
So, floor’s open; what’s our way forward?
David Hoghton-Carter is founder and Programme Director of Minerva Pathway.