The potential benefits of higher education still outweigh the expense, according to a Northern Ireland study of sixth-formers.
But, Tony Gallagher and Bob Cormack from Queen's University and Bob Osborne at the University of Ulster have found that cost discouraged sixth-formers from leaving Northern Ireland and often prevented them from even considering universities in southern England. A few appeared to have opted out of higher education altogether.
Discussions in groups confirmed their hypothesis that the key reason for going to Britain is the high entry grades of the two local universities. A secondary reason, mostly affecting Protestants, is the wish for greater independence.
Of the 19 groups which discussed the Northern Ireland conflict, 11 felt it was not a factor in decision-making, seven believed it was a minor consideration, and one Catholic group thought it had encouraged Protestants to leave.
In a report for the Central Community Relations Unit and the Department of Education, the academics argue that if the cap on student numbers is not lifted, grade inflation will continue and entry levels to Queen's and Ulster will rise further. As a result, the proportion obliged to leave Northern Ireland will remain high and may well increase.
"These effects will bear down particularly heavily on school leavers with lower A level grades who have been unable to obtain places in either of the two local universities, this category appears to comprise a disproportionate number of Catholics," the authors write.
They fear that if action is not taken, the outflow of Protestants will continue and that working-class Catholic participation, which has risen markedly over the past 20 years, will fall again.
Any modest increase in places is unlikely to help people with low A-level grades. "However, action targeted on particular types of additional provision, either through franchised courses or enhanced sub-degree programmes, might be more appropriate if the desired aims are to maintain the social gains that have been achieved in Northern Ireland."
One controversial issue in the focus groups was the highly political image of Queen's. Catholics were concerned about its record of job discrimination and Protestants objected to efforts to redress the balance by dropping the National Anthem and to the bilingual English-Irish signs in the student union building. Some Protestants felt the changes had been made to antagonise them.
The clear evidence was that these views did not have much influence on applications to Queen's which continues to have a high academic reputation. Typical was the Protestant sixth-former who commented: "You don't care what song they play as long as you have your degree. And as for the signs, it makes no difference really."
* The student union at Queen's University, Belfast, has ousted a republican prisoners' pressure group, writes Noel McAdam. The student council voted by to 21 to derecognise the group, called Saoirse, which has campaiged for the release of prisoners.
The move was seen as a further attempt by the student union to depoliticise, following the recent election of a new president. Members rejected both the daughter of veteran republican Bernadette McAliskey and son of Ulster unionist MP John Taylor as candidates.