For 20,000 young adults, this week marks a critical stage in their preparation for adult life. Their decisions, taken individually, will have a critical collective impact on the social, cultural and economic future of this community.
To be a winning economy, Northern Ireland needs more people with the right skills. There is a continuing and unresolved policy problem in devising the education and training on offer.
Of more than 20,000 who have applied for places in universities, about 14,000 will be offered a university place.
Of the 14,000 offers, more than 9,000 will study in Northern Ireland’s universities.
For each aspiring student there are important decisions to be made. Do they want to go to university? Are they capable and motivated to benefit from the demands of a university course? Will the chosen university course be consistent with an acceptable career with acceptable earning potential?
University choice now has an extra element in the decision making. Is the decision to take a university place sensible financially? Will the accumulated debt (for fees and maintenance) and the repayment schedule be acceptable? Will different fee levels influence the choice between going to a university in Britain, or taking a place in an Irish university, or in Northern Ireland?
There will be some individuals whose motivation and ability, if honestly assessed, should consider the possible benefits of other forms of third level development. For students who are awarded the targeted A-level entry requirements, the temptation to stay climbing that academic ladder may be a mistake. Equally, the flexibility of the university clearing process can be a trap for the careless.
This year, because of the greater concern about the personal cost of completing a university course, there may be less pressure on places. Universities may be seeking to recruit more students in clearing. Potential students should be careful about taking places on unfilled courses. Are these under-subscribed courses really relevant, sensibly structured and with demanding academic content?
Rational common sense will influence individuals in more than 20,000 Northern Ireland households. Choice of subjects, choice of university and personal and family financial planning are ‘once in a lifetime’ decisions.
From a wider Northern Ireland government policy perspective, consideration of the scale and content of the offer from higher education institutions merits a critical review. Are there sufficient university places with a good balance of subjects at appropriate levels? Are the universities adjusting the scale and balance of university places to the likely demands of the middle of this century? Is there a bias towards less demanding ‘soft options’?
Two apparently contrary sentiments may influence changes in university provision.
First, Northern Ireland will need an increasing proportion of the next generation to be equipped with third level qualifications well above what is now available in the current labour force. This pressure comes on top of the expansion in university participation for local young people. In 20 years, the proportion of the age group going to university has risen from 26% to 48% in 2011.
Already the age participation ratio is high. A further increase must be based on a carefully determined government policy. Re-allocation of resources from some qualifications to others must be part of the plan.
Second, there is a recurring criticism that too many graduates have difficulty finding jobs. That points either to too many graduates, too many graduates in the wrong subjects or lack of career development realism (or all three).
Unemployed graduates too readily say that there are no jobs. In reply, the challenge is one of course selection and a well-informed focus on personal development.
The annual ritual of university entrance has started again. For 20,000 young people, it is testing and stressful. For students going to university there is the image of a carefree lifestyle. It is a demanding and major expensive investment in personal achievement.