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NI’s further education colleges see sharp fall in student numbers

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Fewer people are leaving further education colleges with vocational qualifications. Photo: kzenon

Fewer people are leaving further education colleges with vocational qualifications. Photo: kzenon

Fewer people are leaving further education colleges with vocational qualifications. Photo: kzenon

A record year of A Level and GCSE results has hit student numbers at Northern Ireland’s further education colleges, new figures from the Department for the Economy has revealed.

Though student numbers had been in decline in the last few years, a further drop of 20% was recorded in the first year of the Covid pandemic.

After pupils achieving better results in the teacher-assessed grades, 56,000 students went on to study at further education colleges in 2020/21, compared to 71,000 in the previous academic year.

The last five years have seen numbers fall from a high of 80,000 in 2016/17.

The report from the Department said that “decreasing part-time enrolments and the number of 16-19 year-olds dipping to its lowest level since the 1950s” were some of the reasons for the decline in numbers.

But it added that numbers had been “exacerbated by Covid-19 related factors, such as more generous GCSE and GCE grades, leading to school pupils being more likely to progress to sixth form college or university”.

The knock-on effect of the fall in student numbers has seen fewer leaving further education colleges with vocational qualifications, with a further effect being felt in the economy with not as many trained and qualified applicants for jobs.

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Over a five-year span, the number of students leaving colleges with qualifications has fallen by a third, from 83,000 in 2016-17 to around 52,000 qualifications were awarded in 2020-21.

There were 13,600 fewer qualifications awarded between 2019-20 and 2020-21 alone, a sharp fall of 20%.

More university places have also been made available to students in recent years, giving more pupils the opportunity to move into higher education rather than attend college.

In December, statistics from the Department of Education revealed that the percentage of school leavers who intend to go and take degree courses at university is continuing to rise in Northern Ireland.

The figures showed the percentage of pupils who say they will go on to higher education courses at university has risen from 43.1% of leavers in 2017/18 to almost half at 47.9% in 2019/20.

The latest Department for the Economy statistics shows further education subjects like construction and engineering are still male dominated.

About 7,300 of 7,529 (97%) enrolments on courses related to construction, planning and the built environment were male students.

But more than 80% of enrolments on courses related to health, public services and care were female students.

The Department for the Economy spends about £210m a year on further education, about a quarter of its annual budget, but there are fears that cuts in the Executive’s draft budget and a loss of EU funding could lead to a further cuts in education and skills provision.

The business community has warned it’s already facing a struggle to find suitably qualified applicants for positions, particularly in technology.

The FE Colleges in Northern Ireland are: Belfast Metropolitan College, CAFRE (College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise), North West Regional College, Northern Regional College, South Eastern Regional College, South West College and Southern Regional College.


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