Students at Further Education colleges in Northern Ireland are being asked to reveal their religion when applying for courses.
Managers at the colleges say they are only implementing a government request and student unions have given it their backing.
The Department of Education explained the data would show the impact of Government funding in education on the two communities and stressed that it was not compulsory to answer the religion question.
Recent research shows significant numbers of young protestants are failing to take up opportunities in higher education courses at the colleges, and they are often going on the dole instead. Schools in Ireland are exempt from fair employment legislation, which requires employers to recruit reasonable numbers from the different communities within Northern Ireland.
But this exemption does not apply to the 17 colleges and two universities, Queen's and the University of Ulster.
The director of the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, Patrick Murphy, said: "We are simply complying with a request for information gathering from the department."
Peter O'Neill, of the National Union of Students and Union of Students in Ireland, said: "Quite frankly, we are supporting this. A lot of researchers have been frustrated by the inability of the colleges to give this kind of information. There seems to be a problem among young protestants, for whom the traditional routes of apprenticeships leading to employment with large companies such as Shorts have been closed off, in gaining access to opportunities in higher education."
However, housewife Joyce Day, who saw the tick box for religion in a booklet outlining evening classes said: "I was just looking to do something like cookery or dressmaking and am surprised to see they were asking my religion.
"What the heck difference was it what my religion was when I wanted an evening class. I don't know why anyone wanting to do pottery or line dancing is asked their religion - will you be asked it when you go to a leisure centre next?"
A spokesman for the department said: "The government is committed to equality of opportunity for all people in Northern Ireland. The students are not compelled to state their religion if they don't wish to."