This much we know - Undergraduate cross border migration


By Jo McLaughlin, New Business Consultant, SMRS


A brief dive into the regional destination choices of accepted undergraduate applicants, to understand whether they remained in or departed from their local regions.

At first glance, the 2023 EOC topline data reveals a robust volume of accepted applicants who stayed within their domiciled region – 246k (51%) of all accepted applicants. However, as we know there are notable variations in the number of providers and population sizes at a regional level, so there’s a compelling case to dig a bit deeper.

The continuation of strong retention of domiciled accepted applicants across Scotland and Northern Ireland won’t come as a surprise to most, with 87% of applicants staying in Scotland (YOY +0.51%) and 95% remaining in Northern Ireland (YOY +0.35%). Over in Wales, there is an established HE migration story;2023 saw 53% of domiciled Welsh applicants (a YOY increase of +2%) accepting places outside of Wales, with 15% jumping over the border to South West institutions and 12% opting for universities in the South East.


In England, not dissimilar to Wales, 46% of applicants accept within their domiciled region, but this headline masks a multitude of variances when you look at the data across individual regions.


Which regions see applicants more likely to stay? 63% of domiciled applicants stay in London, 56% in the North West and 53% in both the East of England and West Midlands.

And where do we start to see signs of wanderlust? Several regions have a lower percentage of retained domiciled accepted applicants –  East Midlands 33%, South East 34%, South West 35%, North East 44% and Yorkshire and the Humber 45%.


So, the key question – can we see any patterns in where they are going?


Well again, it’s probably not a surprising headline, but the significant trend is cross-border migration. The South East saw 16% of their domiciled applicants accepted at South West universities and 14% accepted at London universities. Similarly, we saw 15% of domiciled students from the southwest opting to head to South East universities and 11% headed to Welsh institutions. Edge further north and in the East Midlands, 14% of domiciled accepted applicants chose universities in Yorkshire and the Humber. In the Northeast, the largest outflow of applicants was to universities in Yorkshire and the Humber, with 12% of domiciled applicants accepted in the region.


A significant factor in migration is predictably age-related.


In 2023, 53% of all applicants who accepted a place at a university outside of their region across the UK were 18 years old (this number jumped to 58% across English regions), but this number dropped to 46% for 19-20-year-olds and the downward trend continued to 36% amongst 21-24-year-olds. It would be incredibly easy to assume that the 19-20 year age group would have a similar persona to those aged 18 years old – e.g. a lesser degree of personal and financial commitments – but significantly these applicants are choosing to remain within the region, perhaps as a result of cost-of-living but also having the luxury of time to really consider HE provision in the region.

Ultimately, you need your value proposition and your cost-of-living content to present the true value of your university experience, and to help students differentiate your offer from others, so they can start to narrow down their choices.

These figures will shift from region to region as specific locations and demographics within the region will have a massive part to play. So, unpicking your propensity is the only real way to understand the true picture of your institution.

The challenge for many university leaders is how to initiate their audience-targeting strategy, against the expectation of delivering increased growth in student enrolment numbers, on often static budgets. Our approach to audience propensity provides a road map for up to three cycles, which helps universities understand the challenges and opportunities they need to address.

Another layer to complement propensity is persona development – it is a really neat way of helping your teams understand the needs, behaviours, motivations, preferences and challenges of each audience, to tailor your marketing efforts appropriately.

Across the sector, there are some truly wonderful initiatives, from content to open day travel bursaries, to help prospective students gain a full understanding of the affordability of studying at a UK university  

Over the last two years, we have started to see a shift in the proportion of students who are domiciled in the South of England accepting places in Northern and Midlands institutions, which may be influenced by looking for a location with a lower cost of living. In the main, the growth has been modest, like the +1% increase in South West domiciled students, but swing over to the South East and the proportion of students who have been accepted across Northern and Midlands regions increased by +11% between 2021 and 2023.


So, what’s next to think about? 


Do start to think about how propensity modelling could help you achieve your student numbers. Having clarity around your targeting strategy will help build credibility for your budget needs based on relevant audience data.

Do start to think about investing in data that can help support your team’s decisions and recommendations. I have the joy of meeting some truly exceptional and talented marketing and recruitment teams across the sector. Giving your team a tool that provides relevant data and insights about your audience can only serve to empower them to address your bespoke challenges and opportunities.


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By Jo McLaughlin, New Business Consultant, SMRS