Northern Ireland's on track at last, says minister

June 26, 2008

Northern Ireland's universities are overcoming their historic problem with "reluctant leavers" - local students forced to leave the province for study elsewhere in the UK because there are not enough places at home.

This is the view of Sir Reg Empey, the province's Employment and Learning Minister, who has been touring England and Scotland as part of the "C'mon Over" campaign, to encourage graduates to seek work in Northern Ireland.

At present, about a quarter of students from the province study outside Northern Ireland and less than a third subsequently return. But recently there has been a substantial increase of places at Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster. Student numbers at Ulster, for example, increased from 25,055 in 2003 to ,595 in 2006.

Sir Reg told Times Higher Education that those leaving were now making "lifestyle choices", and noted that the province has reached the participation-rate targets set for England and Wales. But he is eager to see a new higher education culture in Northern Ireland that promotes courses that are economically relevant. Universities might make a case for lifting the cap on student numbers in these areas, he speculated.

He is particularly keen to expand the number of postgraduates. The Department of Employment and Learning supports more than 400 studentships, but it recently secured funds for 100 more PhDs annually.

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