As the students returned en masse to Cambridge University this week, the recent media coverage of a "Lost Generation" of students comes to mind. Are these students doomed to a lifetime blighted by a long unproductive search for their first job in the midst of a recession? Or are they still the world's Bright Young Things who will leave Cambridge without a second glance and head off to glittering careers in bigger, shinier places? In particular, will any of them stay and work here in Cambridge after they graduate, and help us maintain and invigorate the Cambridge Cluster.
Only time will tell, but in recent years the most common beliefs that I have heard stated are that graduates are only interested in going to work in the City, and that no-one stays in Cambridge on graduation because house prices are too high. Followed by the caveat that we clearly cannot address either of those problems so cannot do anything to retain more students on graduation, and ignoring the obvious contradiction between the two views (surely London's house prices are still higher than Cambridge's).
The situation is one that matters for the Cluster's mid-term future. So far the Cambridge Cluster has thrived on its culture of a succession of new start-ups, and people usually found new businesses in the place that they live or work already, with people that they already know. If our students view Cambridge only as a University, and not as a place to do business, then as a community we are wasting one of our most valuable sources of intellectual capital.
With this in mind, I set up a discussion group of recent graduates (both BAs and PhDs) to try to find out what was really going on. The results proved to be both interesting and helpful.
Firstly, we quickly erased the house price argument. All the people in the discussion had found a job first, and only then started to think about where they might live, and how much it might cost. Of more concern was where their friends would be planning to live and work, since generally they had moved into some form of shared housing.
Secondly, and more concerningly, none of them had actually intended to work in Cambridge after graduation, but had generally assumed that they would end up working in London. They had no visibility or exposure to the city outside the University, nor any interest in working here. Those that had accepted jobs in Cambridge had usually fallen into them accidentally, or had personal reasons for wanting to stay here. Their fellow graduates did not see Cambridge as somewhere to work, just as somewhere that they studied.
In our current highly mobile world, it is unlikely that any new graduates will settle in one location and stay there for their whole careers. If they stay in Cambridge after graduation, they may then move to London or New York or Berlin for their second or third job. If they leave Cambridge for their first job, then similarly they might well come back one day. However, they are unlikely to come back if they know nothing about the dynamism and excitement of Cambridge as a place to work, and the easiest time to make them aware of this must be while they are still here.
Fortunately this is a problem that can be solved, and will hopefully be a small step towards preserving the Technopole's long-term dynamism and growth. The EPSRC has sponsored a new group of 'Enterprise College Reps', undergraduates who will be tasked with telling their college compatriots about the Enterprise activities available to them, and also with forging closer links between the student community and local businesses. The first such College Reps are being recruited this week. Watch this space...