The percentage of school leavers who intend to go and take degree courses at university is continuing to rise in Northern Ireland.
Latest figures from the Department of Education show the percentage of pupils who say they will go on to higher education courses has risen from 43.1% of leavers in 2017/18 to almost half at 47.9% in 2019/20.
At the same time the number of pupils leaving school who intend to go on to vocational education in one of Northern Ireland’s regional colleges is falling, down from 33.5% of leavers four years ago to 29.2% in 2019/20.
The statistics have been released by Education Minister Michelle McIlveen after a question from SDLP MLA Justin McNulty and show there is more work to be done to promote the benefits of the further education system.
Looking at the physical number of school leavers heading on to university, the overall figure has risen from 9,283 in 2017/18 to 9,907 in 2019/20. At the same time the number intending to go to further education has slumped from 7,225 to 6,039.
There was a sharp increase in the proportion of leavers whose destination was recorded as higher education in 2019/20.
The Department said this appears to be the result of an increase in the number of pupils achieving A-level grades required for admissions and an increase in the maximum student number allowed in higher education institutions in Northern Ireland.
Where Northern Ireland is beginning to succeed is in keeping school leavers in the country to continue their studies.
Concerns have been raised about a ‘brain drain’ with students opting to head to the UK mainland or further afield to continue their studies, but the statistics show that more and more are opting to stay at home.
The number of students who intend to stay in Northern Ireland to attend university has risen from 67.3% in 2017/18 to 73.5% in 2019/20.
Those seeking to head to other parts of the UK for university courses has fallen in the same period, from 30.2% in 2017/18 to 24.3% in 2019/20.
There has been a similar decline in those intending to travel further afield to take further education courses.
Some 89.6% were intending to stay in Northern Ireland in 2019/20 compared to 87.2% two years previously.
Last month the head of North West College said those in the further education sector were ready to offer more to provide the talent to secure Northern Ireland’s economic future, but added support for the sector was needed.
“Each year our sector, which injects £126m annually to the local economy, supports more than 60,000 students to reach their fullest potential in whatever career path they choose,” said Leo Murphy, chief executive and principal at the college.
“This is achieved through dedicated courses and connections with over 9,000 employers across the country who are well-placed to offer valuable on-the-job training to our learners and enable them to be ‘work-ready’ as well as industry leading lecturers training our students in what our employers need.
“Reviews of the education system show that post-16, more direction and investment needs to be pointed towards vocational study which offers young people options beyond academia and provides the key skills and knowledge to take up roles in many of the key economic driving sectors including manufacturing, fintech and health care.
“This can be done through the thorough implementation of the long-awaited 14-19 Strategy and the investment in courses that allow students to access that real life working experience which sets our learners apart and gives them those vital skills to make them the key drivers in our economy."
Work must commence to ensure young people are made aware of the array of resources, courses and qualifications on offer across the six further education colleges, he said.
He added: “There is much discussion on the perceived ‘brain drain’ of our young people who move away for university. Our solution to this issue is enhanced awareness of the local further education system and what it can offer our young learners at a fraction of the cost.
“Our schools have a duty to work in partnership with local further education colleges to provide our young people with the information on options that are best suited for them. It will help set some of our younger generations on the right pathway which will be both right for them and create added value to our local economy and in turn society.”