Why England's cap fails to fit

May 9, 1997

Northern Ireland can't keep its students. The THES looks at the troubled province in its latest regional spotlight

Robert Cormack of Queen's University and Robert Osborne of Ulster University, known as "The Bobs", are the acknowledged experts on the impact of imposing England's cap on student numbers on Northern Ireland.

Many high-fliers have traditionally left the province to study in British universities, but the cap forces middle- and low-fliers to join them. And 80 per cent never return.

"Because of the high demand for places, entrance requirements are being racked up, so a lot of middle-performing students don't have a choice," says Professor Osborne. "Between a third and half of students who leave may not be doing so voluntarily."

At the start of the decade, Northern Ireland needed an extra 12,000 places to win parity with Scotland's ratio or an extra 5,300 places to match the Welsh figure, and the undersupply continues to worsen.

The Bobs also warn of the economic impact. Student spending lost to the province would be at least Pounds 38 million if given parity with Scotland or Pounds 17 million with Wales.

A further crisis is looming: in recent years, many Northern Irish students have gone to private colleges in Dublin, two hours away from Belfast, but the Government has now clamped down on paying fees and maintenance grants for these degrees.

Peter O'Neill, manager of the National Union of Students/Union of Students in Ireland student centre, deplores the move, which, he says, will particularly disadvantage Catholics from manual, rural backgrounds. "There is a fear among some Catholic students that they could face discrimination and a significant chill factor in some British institutions. We want there to be as many options available as possible, even if that's through private college routes."

Professor Cormack suggests the block on expansion may breach the province's policy appraisal and fair treatment initiative, which says policies should ensure equal opportunities. Potential Catholic applicants are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are less able to take up education away from home, he says.

Mr O'Neill praises both universities for promoting outreach, "without that much central government support". This is particularly crucial in a region where over 11 per cent of people have no GCSEs, compared with 5 per cent in the UK as a whole. Both institutions are fostering access courses through further education colleges, and using new technology to promote higher education in rural areas.

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