Where the heart is, but not the incentive to stay

December 8, 2000

Northern Ireland has the potential to thrive if it encourages young people to study there, says George Bain

Next week, United States president Bill Clinton returns to Northern Ireland. For all its fragility, the peace process remains one of the real achievements of his term of office.

Once he has said his farewell as president, the job of making peace work falls to the people of Northern Ireland.

Anyone with even a moderate understanding of Northern Ireland will appreciate the difficulty of that job.

Economic conditions are tough. The province is over-reliant on the public sector for employment, and traditional industries such as heavy engineering and shipbuilding are in decline.

But, now that power is in the hands of locally elected politicians, there is a determination to turn the social and economic tide. Perhaps for the first time in its history, Northern Ireland recognises that its strength lies in the skills of its people. It is a dynamic and creative place, perfectly positioned to take advantage of the new economy, which is based on brain rather than brawn.

As a result of this shifting focus, there is an awareness of the loss each year of thousands of Northern Ireland's young people who leave to get a third-level education. A significant number of these people do not return after their studies.

For a variety of reasons - economic, geographical and the Troubles - we do not get as high an influx of young people. Even if more students could be attracted to the province, we do not have the university places to accommodate them.

Among the 12,676 full-time undergraduates from Northern Ireland studying outside the province in 1999-2000, a significant number are reluctant leavers. The majority of young people who leave each year do so because they have no option.

The cap on student numbers at Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster means both institutions turn away applicants that universities in Great Britain are delighted to snap up.

This has an economic impact. How can Northern Ireland compete in a global market when it loses such a high proportion of its highly educated young people.

There is a significant social cost too. Northern Ireland remains a place where there is a strong emphasis on community. Many families are blighted by the loss of a generation who leave for education never to return.

The Northern Ireland Assembly and higher education minister Sean Farren are aware of the problem. Steps have been taken by his department to increase the number of places available to the province's students. This is a welcome change of direction, as is the speed with which he has moved. Devolution is still in its infancy in this part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland Plc believes that there is enormous potential in the software, electronics and telecoms sectors. These are areas where the university has an international reputation.

Strategy 2010 - Northern Ireland's economic blueprint - states that the biggest obstacle to meeting demand in these sectors will be a lack of skills. The university sector is uniquely placed to make a difference in this area.

Queen's, which runs Northern Ireland's international arts festival and art house cinema, is also a key player in the development of creative industries (not surprising when one looks at the impressive list of alumni ranging from Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney to actors Simon Callow and Liam Neeson).

Health technologies is another area of enormous potential where Queen's is well-placed to respond to the need for an increased number of highly skilled graduates. And, finally, there is a need for more graduates in the areas of business management and law. Almost 500 students left Northern Ireland to study these subjects in 1999.

But there is another reason to increase the number of places at the university. We must continue to widen access to pupils from disadvantaged areas who do not have third-level education in their sights.

Access to the highest quality education for all will be one of the crucial elements in ensuring long-term social and political stability in Northern Ireland.

With all the competing priorities for funding as Northern Ireland pulls itself out of the mire of the past 30 years, the issue of student numbers has to take its place in ministerial wish lists.

But this is one of those areas where the needs of higher education in the province match its social, political and economic needs.

For the first time in recent history, Queen's can enter constructive dialogue with politicians who, because of their direct stake in the community they serve, recognise the strength of the arguments.

In turn, those politicians need the support of the government, the European Union and friends such as the United States, to ensure that they have the resources to deliver and to secure peace.

George Bain is vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast.

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