Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Exam results show that we need more university places

Third level education is vital to equip young people with skills they need to secure their careers in the future, says Professor Richard Barnett

This year, the University of Ulster has seen the largest number of applications for study in its history - over 34,200. But while the student tuition fees differential between NI and England, with their universities charging up to £9,000 is having a major impact on patterns of student demand, it's not the only factor that has increased the number of people wanting to study at home in Northern Ireland.

We are seeing more pressure for places here at Ulster this year. It's a clear indication that more Northern Ireland students are increasingly choosing a university close to home.

The past five years have also seen a 10% rise in the number of pupils staying on to do A-Levels - up from 47% to 57%. This too contrasts with the position in England and Wales where the numbers taking A-Levels have fallen.

One explanation is, of course, the recession - with young people deciding to upskill and go to university in the hope that qualifications will lead to improved job opportunities in the future, when the economy recovers its vitality.

Does this additional home pressure mean that potentially able students are being squeezed out of higher education?

It is certainly a concern, especially for a University like Ulster, which prides itself on its long-standing commitment to widening participation.

Additional demand for undergraduate places here can only be met by relaxing the cap on universities. And that decision is in the hands of the NI Executive.

Sustained investment in higher education is profoundly important for the long-term economic, social and cultural health of Northern Ireland.

The kind of skills a university education supplies are increasingly important in securing the careers of the future. I've said for some time that we simply do not have enough undergraduate degree places in Northern Ireland.

In particular, we need more of the type of programmes that Ulster specialises in - degree programmes which are applied in nature, and include wherever possible both a period of work-based learning, and professional accreditation. Only through this kind of approach can we properly prepare our students to compete in the modern workplace.

In this context, A-Level performance is not the be-all and end-all in terms of demonstrating the ability to complete a degree.

For an increasing number of our degree programmes, the University of Ulster already takes into account aptitude as well as A-Level performance, and I hope we will be able to do more of this in the future.

It is through these kinds of flexible, professionally-accredited programmes that take into account sheer talent and aptitude, as well as A-Level exam ability, that we at Ulster can help the next generation fulfil its potential.

DEL Minister Stephen Farry has been able to secure some money from the NI Executive to fund some extra places this year. I know that he wants more university places, and I certainly support him in arguing that we should have more places.

We have expansion plans at Magee, our Derry-Londonderry campus, for extra students there - and this year we can clearly see the increased level of demand. It would be a disaster for our young people's futures if a lack of places meant they were denied the chance to realise their full potential..

I am also worried that the increasing cost of becoming an undergraduate may put some people off higher education, especially talented people who are less well-off.

We are concerned to ensure that access to higher education should be governed by your ability, not the depth of your pockets.

That said, in order to help people assess whether higher education is really right for them, some level of financial test is appropriate - keeping fees at their current level, as has been done in Northern Ireland, I think is about right.

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