A new Northern Ireland credit transfer scheme embracing both further and higher education could help protect access by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the chairman of the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council.
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland suffers from a substantial undersupply of undergraduate places. Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, speaking at the Society for Research into Higher Education's Belfast conference, Higher Education In Britain and Ireland, said he would not necessarily argue that all student demand could or should be satisfied locally, since studying in another part of the UK broadened student experience, while an inflow of students made Ireland more cosmopolitan.
But there were warnings that mature students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds would suffer disproportionately from pressure on student places. A growing number of Northern Irish students have been attending private colleges in the Republic of Ireland, but from next year, Northern Ireland funding bodies will no longer pay their fees.
Sir Kenneth suggested that one solution could be a more integrated tertiary system, boosting links between the two universities and 17 further education colleges. Peter Roebuck, pro vice chancellor at Ulster University, is chairing a steering committee on developing a Northern Ireland Credit Accumulation and Transfer System to allow students to move more freely between the sectors.
"Such a development would not only be a challenge to the existing institutions to develop their collaborative mechanisms, but would also offer potential benefits to students and, ultimately to the Northern Ireland community," said Sir Kenneth.
But using Wales as an example, John Andrews, chief executive of both the higher and further education funding councils for Wales, warned of the danger of higher education "milking" further education funds within a single body.
Even if the Welsh bodies were to merge, he would argue strongly for separate budgets, he said. It was asking a great deal of the council to deal with research at one end and adult literacy and numeracy at the other.