A MASS exodus of Northern Ireland students across the border is being predicted in the wake of the Dearing review.
Sir Ron Dearing's proposal to introduce fees came precisely as they were abolished in the Irish Republic. Now a reversal of the current situation in higher education in the province is being envisaged.
Previously students who would have had to pay fees in the Republic saved themselves the expense by studying in the North.
Under EU regulations students from member countries are entitled to the same benefits as their counterparts in the country in which they are studying.
Now Ulster undergraduates could save money by studying in the new fee-free system in the south. In the last academic year for which statistics are available 1995/96, a total of 3,125 students from the Republic were enrolled in full-time undergraduate courses in the North, about 13 per cent of the total. The figure increases to 4,165 when students undertaking part-time courses or postgraduate work are included.
Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor has long campaigned against southern "freeloaders" on the grounds that they were costing British taxpayers Pounds 5 million a year and forcing Northern Ireland students, who might prefer to stay at home, to go to the mainland. He said that the swift change of circumstances is manna from heaven.
"Hopefully we will now have 3,000 extra places for university students from our own families in Ulster," he said.
Nigel O'Connor, Northern Ireland convenor of NUS/USI said: "At a time when the peace process is beginning to move forward, the Government must not disadvantage Northern Ireland students by burdening their future with fees."
The province's education minister, Tony Worthington, is to hold a conference on the implications of Dearing in the autumn which is likely to focus on the report's recommendation of a substantial increase in student places in the province.
It would need an extra 12,000 higher education places to equal provision in Scotland.