The scramble for university places is on, with just over 1,000 places in Northern Ireland still to be filled.
A total of 8,030 applicants accepted a place at one of our universities yesterday, according to the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) after they received the highest recorded number of applicants.
Just under 19,600 people had applied for a place at Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster, Stranmillis University College or St Mary’s University College by the January 15 deadline — an increase of 1,295 students compared to the same period last year — as students decide to stay at home for a second consecutive year and avoid higher tuition fees in the UK institutions.
Queen’s University Belfast had 4,036 places for first year full-time, undergraduate courses, while the University of Ulster had 5,000. Demand exceeded supply at our teaching colleges — with Stranmillis University College offering 235 undergraduate places and St Mary’s offering 248.
Around 1,000 people have yet to accept their firm or insurance offer from higher education institutions — 244 more than this time last year.
Meanwhile, 11,280 students from Northern Ireland were accepted yesterday at further education institutions. Of those, 7,330 had a place at a local university — 1,130 more than last year — while a further 2,870 accepted a place on an undergraduate course in England, slightly more again than last year.
Students will go to institutions in Scotland and Wales in smaller numbers this year — 940 and 140 respectively according to the latest available update from UCAS.
Students usually have until August 31 to accept university offers but this varies from between institutions.
At the beginning of the week, 13,725 people had applied to Northern Ireland’s four universities — with demand outstripping available places.
Hundreds of places are also available at our six regional colleges, with capacity on full-time courses expanded by 23% at the South West Regional College.
By yesterday lunchtime, Queen’s had received 2,500 calls to its helpline, with more than 1,200 coming into the University of Ulster. Both had roughly 100 places available through clearing yesterday.
Meanwhile, pupils who have applied for full-time, undergraduate courses at St Mary’s University College will hear today if they have been successful.
Queen’s pro-vice chancellor Professor Tony Gallagher said students with an eye on the jobs market are enrolling in greater numbers in science, technology and maths undergraduate courses — STEM subjects — while once-popular construction-linked specialities decline in demand.
He added: “The Department for Employment and Learning has been putting investment in STEM areas and clearly that information is getting to schools and pupils. We have seen that very clearly in the last couple of years.”
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said the A-Level success was heartening.
But Rebecca Hall, president of NUS-USI, Northern Ireland’s biggest student movement, called for more government funding to widen access to education.
Higher tuition fees in the UK of up to £9,000 continue to boost a trend towards studying at home. However, student debt, which has reached a staggering £1.2bn in Northern Ireland alone, continues to be a deterrent for many.
Ms Hall said: “We acknowledge that Government is working on this issue.
“However, even more money needs to be invested and further projects must be created to break down any barriers that still exist to higher education.
“Higher education is for the whole community, and entry should be on merit — not money.”