Can the drain be stopped?

Ryan Jennings looks at the number of school leavers leaving the province to study.

Being part of the UK, it is not unusual for a school leaver to opt for a university place in Great Britain over one in Northern Ireland. There are two main universities in Northern Ireland. In comparison there are over 50 in England, Scotland and Wales. Simply put, there is more to choose from.

In brief terms, in the 2008-2009 academic year, of all students enrolling from Northern Ireland to higher education in the UK, 67 per cent went to universities here. Eighteen per cent went to England, with 8 per cent heading in the general direction of Stranraer and less that 1 per cent going to Wales.

Sharing a geographical border with the Republic is not as big a pull as it may seem. In that same year, 1,025 travelled south of the border. That figure has declined in recent years from a high of 1,220 in 2005-2006.

One other problem associated with Northern Ireland universities is that they generally do not attract from outside the province that well. The vast majority of students (86 per cent) who attend universities here already live in the province. Only 3 per cent come from Great Britain, with 7 per cent making the journey north or east from the Republic.

Indeed in an Equality Commission report in May 2008, it states that there are “relatively few educational in-migrants from GB”.

What do they go for?

Undergraduate degrees account for the majority of the ‘drain’. In 2008-2009 some 4,955 school leavers left these shores to study in Great Britain as undergrads.

Overall, though, in that same year 14,070 Northern Ireland students were at any stage of an undergraduate degree over the water.

Postgraduate courses prove less popular to the diaspora. In that academic year only 1,355 made the journey across the Irish Sea to complete a course. Some of those, of course, will likely have been away to study initially.

The figure for all students from Northern Ireland studying for a postgrad at any stage in Great Britain in 2008-2009 was 2,280.

A trend?

It is difficult to put forward a trend on the drain as there is neither an upward nor downward correlation. In 2004-2005, 6,170 were studying in Great Britain. That figure jumped exactly 100 the next year before dropping to 6,210 in 2006-2007. The recent years’ peak stands at 6,315 in 2007-2008. The following year saw only a slight drop, to 6,310.

The Equality Commission report stated that girls are “slightly more likely” than boys to leave to study in Great Britain, but agendaNi research shows that a larger percentage of males do in fact leave, though only by just over 3 per cent. The majority of students – 64 per cent in males and 68 per cent in females – still remain in the province to attend a university.

In June 2008, DEL published a report into ‘participation in higher education institutions’. Although not its flagship point, the report did find that applications to Northern Ireland by far overshadow applications to institutions elsewhere in the UK.

Of the sample the report used, 40.9 per cent had all their choices for a Northern Ireland university while 9.1 per cent were for all Great Britain-based universities. That, though, is still the best part of 10 per cent of school leavers opting to leave these shores.

The other half of the sample opted for a “mixed pattern”, i.e. having choices in both Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Over half of those pupils raised in the Catholic community were described as “determined stayers” as they had only opted for Northern Ireland institutions. Only 5.1 per cent of those chose to apply to GB-only. Of those pupils raised in the Protestant community 34.2 per cent had Northern Ireland-only choices, with 10.1 per cent going for Great Britain-only universities.

Nearly half of those pupils who had applied to both sides of the water had their Great Britain choices as the ‘dominant’ one. Thirty-five per cent had Northern Ireland-based universities as their top pick. In general, then, students who opt for a GB-based institution at all will invariably have it top on their list.

The report also points to the differences in religious background. There is a stark contrast between those who either have all their choices across the water or as the dominant pick. Protestant pupils (37.4 per cent) have almost double the Catholic figure, which sits at 19.7 per cent. Pupils of that community conversely record 71.9 per cent of their choices as either all Northern Ireland or at least Northern Ireland-dominated. The Protestant pupils’ figure stands at 49.5 per cent.

Far from stating that Protestant pupils are the most likely to take their leave, the report says that social class also plays a part. Pupils from a lower social grouping are evidently more likely to have both their firm and insurance choices in Northern Ireland.

In the same vein those pupils who state their firm choice as an institution across the water generally have higher AS-level grades and higher predicted A-level grades.

A DEL spokesman told agendaNi that his department was fully aware that students from Northern Ireland have “complete freedom of choice” of where to study. The 2008 report, he said, indicated that those students who do leave the province are classed as “determined leavers” i.e. they do not leave because of lack of choice here.

However, on 25 January Dawn Purvis told the Assembly that the “real debate is not whether our young people are leaving Northern Ireland to study elsewhere but whether those young people – whatever their background – look to Northern Ireland as a place worth coming back to following that experience. Sadly, for many the answer is no, and there is a tragedy in that.”

A statistic stated by the Equality Commission in its report supports Purvis’ point. It says that regardless of which university was attended, 81 per cent of Northern Ireland graduates come ‘home’ for six months immediately following graduation. The commission’s statistics state that only 10 per cent of those students who had left to study return to Northern Ireland permanently after graduation.

Destination of first year students 2008-2009











All Students















Male students studying in Northern Ireland



Males students who study in GB







Females studying in Northern Ireland



Females studying in GB



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