Sharp decline in number of local students applying for places at universities
The number of applications made by people from Northern Ireland to universities has fallen by 5%, it has emerged.
According to figures from the Universities and College Admissions Service (Ucas), the number of local university applicants dropped from 20,400 in 2016 to 19,470 by January 2017.
But the percentage of 18-year-old university applicants from Northern Ireland remains the highest in the UK.
Almost half (47.5%) of 18-year-olds from here have applied to start a university course this autumn.
That is significantly higher than the equivalent figures in England (37%), Scotland (33%) and Wales (32%).
The biggest drop in Northern Ireland university applications rates was recorded among the numbers of 25-29 year-old applicants, which dwindled by 21% this year.
The Ucas admissions figures relate to those applying for places at university courses starting in September 2017.
Another statistic to note from the figures is that many more women applied to universities here than men.
More than 55% of all 18-year-old women (6,580) applied this year, compared to under 40% (4,920) of 18-year-old men.
Among the usually popular courses that saw the biggest drop in applications from local students were veterinary sciences and computer sciences.
Across the UK there was a 5% decline in applications compared to last year.
Across the EU the decline was even higher at 7%.
Ucas analysis of applications made by the January 15 deadline - the first reliable indicator of demand for 2017 entry - suggests four factors behind the overall decline: falling demand from EU students, for nursing courses following the abolition of bursaries in England, from students in older age groups, and a slowdown in growth in applications from 18-year-olds.
NUS-USI president Fergal McFerran expressed concern about the drop in applications. "This is an extremely troubling reduction in the number of applications here," he said.
"Having a 5% reduction in the number of Ucas applicants in Northern Ireland in the context of a reported 16% fall in applications to further education colleges before Christmas is shameful."
Mr McFerran also appealed to politicians to think about how to remove barriers that might dissuade students.
"As we face an Assembly election in a matter of weeks, I would urge all of our politicians to think carefully about whether their priorities reflect the hopes and aspirations of our citizens," he said.
"Our young people are our greatest asset and we desperately need stable, transparent, devolved Government to deliver for them. Barriers to education must be eliminated at all levels.
"We must recognise the importance of providing opportunities to learn and grow, allowing people to improve their life chances and deliver a more equal society."