The proportion of Northern Ireland's students opting to leave the province to take up university places in England, Scotland and Wales is falling as more courses become available at home, research indicates.
But Northern Ireland's two universities, Ulster and Queen's, may still have to improve their recruitment strategies because increased competition leaves them vulnerable to "raiding parties" from universities across the Irish Sea.
A new report, After School, shows that the traditional problem in the province of "reluctant leavers" is over, as the number of places available at local universities now matches school-leavers' demands.
Its authors, Robert Osborne of the Social and Policy Research Institute at the University of Ulster and Tony Gallagher of the School of Education at Queen's University Belfast, had previously warned of students who were obliged to study elsewhere in the UK because of the lack of places at home.
But their latest survey shows that more school-leavers are able to opt for a place close to home because the number of places at Queen's and Ulster has grown by 20 per cent over the past decade.
The research was commissioned by the Department of Employment and Learning. Its minister, Sir Reg Empey, said: "We typically lose around a quarter of our Northern Ireland-domiciled students. However, this figure is decreasing, and these findings indicate that students, rather than being reluctant leavers, in fact migrate for reasons that are predominantly positive."
Professor Osborne said this figure represented a significant drop - a decade ago, 36 per cent of university entrants left Northern Ireland.
There was also no evidence that those now seeking to go elsewhere in the UK were doing so to escape political unrest. The top reason cited by university entrants leaving the province was that their choice was "the best place for the course". With only two universities, Northern Ireland does not offer a complete range of courses: there is no veterinary medicine, for example.
But Professor Osborne warned that, while in the past, the two universities had been able to be selective because of a dearth of places, they would now have to be more proactive. Northern Ireland was still subject to "raiding parties" of recruiters, notably from Scotland and the north of England.
"It is clear that if there is a more competitive environment, the universities will have to put more into getting their message out to schools and arranging open days," he said.
Northern Ireland's universities are also facing the worst demographic downturn within the UK. Times Higher Education last week reported that the number of full-time undergraduates in Northern Ireland is set to fall by 13.2 per cent by 2019-20 and, unlike the rest of the UK, this is not projected to improve by 2026-.
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