Many of Northern Ireland's brightest young people are forced to leave the province to study because of the government cap on the number of local student places. But researchers who flagged up the problem of "reluctant leavers" are now warning of another major group of "reluctant stayers".
These school-leavers cannot afford to leave Northern Ireland to study on the mainland, but cannot get into Queen's University Belfast or Ulster University because of the cap.
The Centre for Research on Higher Education, a centre shared by the two universities, says that these students are qualified to enter mainland universities, but may resit their A levels in the hope of achieving the higher grades to allow them into Queen's or UU. Some may simply abandon the idea of a university education.
The research team, funded by the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council, surveyed 1,200 A-level and GNVQ students in schools and further education colleges.
Bob Osborne, one of the report's authors and co-director of the centre, said it had revealed that cost was a brake on where students wanted to go to study. Some 63 per cent wanted to go to university in the province, a figure that increased as the full weight of financial and family consequences of studying in Great Britain became clearer.
Of those wanting to stay, 40 per cent said the cost of studying outside the province was too high, while 26 per cent cited family reasons. Only 2.5 per cent said they could only study their preferred course in Northern Ireland.
The main reason for wanting to leave the province was to live away from home (31 per cent), while the next most common reasons were availability of course (15 per cent) and easier entry grades (14 per cent).
In a separate research paper to be published later this year, Professor Osborne suggests that the number of students seeking to stay in the province could rise because of the shift to student loans and fees.
He warns that the student support changes could also lead to a drop in the number of mature students going into full-time higher education. The most recent figures for 1999 entry show a 2.3 per cent drop in Northern Ireland applicants under 21, but an 8.1 per cent drop in those aged 21 and over.
"Moreover, this figure conceals a drop of 19.1 per cent of men aged 21 and over compared with a tiny increase among women,'' Professor Osborne said.