A record number of students have applied for places at one of Northern Ireland’s universities this autumn.
The Universities Colleges Admission Service (Ucas) revealed that 19,587 people had applied for a place at either Queen’s University Belfast, University of Ulster, Stranmillis University College or St Mary’s University College by the January 15 deadline.
That is the highest ever number of applicants, and an increase of 1,295 students compared to the same period last year.
It is also the highest percentage increase (7.1%) of any UK region.
Almost nine in every 10 students are from Northern Ireland, with 17,353 applicants opting for a higher education course here.
Experts have attributed that figure to the low tuition fees of £3,575 for the 2013-14 academic year — significantly less than the £9,000 maximum charged by universities in England and Wales.
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said: “These figures show that demand for higher education provision in Northern Ireland and across the UK remains high.
“My department’s decision to maintain tuition fees in Northern Ireland at their current levels, subject only to inflationary increases, has ensured that the aspirations of our young people have not been diminished.
“In order to ensure that the local economy is provided with an appropriately skilled workforce, it is vital the Northern Ireland Executive continues to invest in higher education. That is why I announced a further 500 undergraduate places in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects on top of 700 new places announced previously, bringing the total increase in student places to 1,200 by 2015.”
But more than half of Northern Ireland students (51%) applied to English universities despite the £27,000 price tag for a three-year course — up 5.6% on last year.
Almost a third (31%) who applied to Scottish universities — a rise of 17.3% — seem undeterred by a move by the Scottish Government to close the Irish passport loophole exploited by some Northern Ireland students to avoid paying fees at Scottish universities.
The loophole allowed people from Northern Ireland, England and Wales with Irish passports to study for free.
Students from England and Wales starting university this year will pay up to £9,000 to study in any part of the UK. Scottish students will not pay any fees in Scotland, but up to £9,000 to study in any other part of the UK. Students from Northern Ireland will pay up to £9,000 to study in Britain, but only up to £3,375 if they go to Queen’s or the University of Ulster. EU students will pay up to £9,000 to attend English or Welsh universities, and up to £3,575 to study in Northern Ireland. But they can study in Scotland without paying any fees.
Robust demand for higher education
By Bob Osborne
UCAS examined 2013 applicants compared with those of the last 10 years against the population of 18-year-olds.
The data suggests that the demand for higher education in Northern Ireland is robust and shows little evidence of any reduction, notwithstanding a small reduction in 18-year-olds.
Ucas estimates that almost half of all Northern Ireland 18-year-olds (48%) have applied to enter higher education this year, and this compares with the much lower figures of approximately 35% in England and 30% in Scotland and in Wales.
This significantly higher rate for Northern Ireland is consistent over the 10-year period, but 2013 is the highest to date.
However, there is a substantial difference by gender with a third more women than men applying. Ucas also notes a rising proportion of those from disadvantaged areas, although it is unable to measure whether this increase is drawn from both communities.
The financial advantages for those who graduate may be less secure than in the past, yet the demand for higher education from Northern Ireland young people whether to study at home, or elsewhere in the UK, remains strong.
Emeritus Professor Bob Osborne lectures at the University of Ulster