Northern Ireland could gain 3,000 jobs if it keeps just half of the university students who now study outside the province, according to a study by an Ulster University professor.
A report by Wallace Ewart, director of Ulster's Springvale project, on the impact of Northern Ireland's two universities on the provincial economy is likely to strengthen calls to end the cap on student numbers. Unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has a net outflow of students, up to half of whom may not wish to leave.
About 42 per cent of 18-year-olds go on to higher education, a significantly higher proportion than in England and Wales, Professor Ewart said.
"However, we are losing about 40 per cent of students to outside Northern Ireland and we are not getting any students back in return. We are not getting the full benefit of having such a high participation rate."
Professor Ewart's methodology is based on work by Iain McNicoll, professor of applied economics at Strathclyde University, who has written reports on the wider economic impact of higher education for the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
Professor Ewart found that each university job leads to the creation of 1.47 jobs in the community. If the two universities were able to retain half of those currently leaving, about 7,000 students, it would create 3,200 jobs: 1,300 of them in higher education, 1,900 elsewhere.
"This is not an emotional argument, saying we want more places, but saying if there were more places, this would be the impact not just in terms of jobs in higher education, but jobs generated in Northern Ireland," said Professor Ewart.
On the basis of 1994-95 figures, Ulster and the Queen's University Belfast had 5,320 full-time equivalent jobs, with a knock-on effect of almost 7,800 jobs.