"A brain drain of epic proportions" – that's the stark warning from a new report which claims that the region is facing a skills crisis because our brightest and best are attending universities elsewhere.
"Northern Ireland competitiveness damaged by graduate skills shortage – a review of the evidence" has been produced by the University for Derry group.
The document claims Northern Ireland has the smallest university sector of any of the UK's four nations, meaning we are finding it harder and harder to compete in the global economy.
While low corporation tax has been cited as a big draw for foreign investors, the report argues that a skilled workforce, highly educated graduates and close proximity to top universities is also a big factor in international companies choosing where to put their money.
The report, by researcher Paul Gosling, claims that Northern Ireland has not done enough to become competitive in terms of skills, productivity and graduates and is urging action to help stop the region losing around 5,000 students per year.
With the UK Government increasing the provision of university places by 30,000 places this year – and by even more in 2015, when it removes its remaining cap on student numbers – the report argues that the situation could get even worse.
While England started to abolish its MaSN – maximum student numbers – in 2002, Northern Ireland has retained its MaSN, forcing more students to become "reluctant leavers" to university in Great Britain.
Despite Northern Ireland having the highest rate of young people going on to higher education, it has not matched this with a significant rise in university places and the region has one of the lowest rates of graduates per capita of any developed economy.
The average rate of young people completing university level education in developed econ-omies is 38%. The Republic of Ireland is above average, at more than 45%, while the UK is below average at 35%, but after excluding those who study in Great Britain, the figure for Northern Ireland is less than 31%.
Only three developed countries have rates of school leavers going to university at lower levels – Luxembourg, which only formed a university for the first time in 2003, Hungary, where the government has imposed a strict cap on student numbers as part of its austerity programme, and Germany, which has a much stronger vocational training element in its education system and a higher standard of pre-university education.
The Republic is also educating almost 50% more of its school leavers at university level compared to Northern Ireland.
While it is widely assumed that the Republic attracts inward investment through its low corporate tax rate, the report says another key factor has been the availability of its higher skilled workforce, with an "exceptionally high" level of young adults with degree level skills.
The document concludes that the low levels of graduates in the Northern Ireland workforce is a significant factor in its low productivity and that increasing the number of graduates in Northern Ireland's workforce would benefit both indigenous businesses and inward investors.
It also claims that Northern Ireland is particularly disadvantaged by having even low rates of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and creative industries graduates, while producing too many teaching and general discipline graduates.
Recommendations include a substantial increase in undergraduate courses, particularly in the STEM and creative industries courses, an extra 15,400 university places to bring us up to the level, per capita, of provision in England and the need for an extra 6,600 graduates per annum in the Northern Ireland labour market to keep pace with projected demand.
The report says that a strategy is required to attract back to Northern Ireland many of the graduates who have moved away and to bring back into the workforce more people who left temporarily, for example as parents.
It adds that Northern Ireland's economy cannot operate simply on the basis of university provision responding to employers demands, stating that inward investment decisions are based on available supply and that supply must anticipate demand.
Many indigenous Northern Ireland businesses have benefited from strong links to our universities. From an income of almost £500m, Queen's generates an additional £400m and the University of Ulster an additional £275m in economic activity.
The two universities directly employ 6,500 people and generate at least the same number again through the multiplier effect.
Queen's venture spin-out company, QUBIS, has generated companies with an annual turnover in excess of £100m and almost 1,000 high value jobs, creating five new high-tech companies in the last three years.
One of the most successful is Andor Technology plc, which was set up in 1989 and employs over 260 people in 16 offices worldwide and has now surpassed market capitalisation of £100m.
Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Northern Ireland have benefited considerably from technology transfer.
There are currently 70 Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programmes in Northern Ireland: 40 are led by Queen's, 17 by the University of Ulster and 13 by the further education colleges.
The report has also urged our universities to look to why the facilities in Great Britain are so popular.