Independent review calls for more places and higher fees in Northern Ireland

Number controls are causing an “export of talent”, but budget cuts and political gridlock in Stormont make progress seem far away

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

Number controls in the NI higher education system – through the setting of Maximum Student Numbers (MaSN) – have long been argued to create a “brain drain” in which young people go elsewhere in the UK for higher education, and then never return.

We’ve written before about the reasons behind this – research suggests it’s one among many reasons, including jobs and community divisions – and today’s Independent Review of Education in Northern Ireland (commissioned in response to the New Decade New Approach deal back in 2020) seeks to dig a little deeper into the issue, despite being in theory restricted to considering other parts of the education system and mostly stay away from HE.

Using UCAS data, the review analyses whether students who leave do so “reluctantly” (after having a Northern Ireland institution as a UCAS first choice) or are “determined” to go (only applying to institutions in Great Britain).

It finds that in a decade “determined leavers” reliably made up 30-something per cent of those who left, and those who only left after having an NI first choice were between six and 11 per cent – so in fact the majority applied to a mix of institutions and were not easily categorisable as reluctant or determined to go.

However, the number of reluctant leavers is not found to have a direct correlation with the total MaSN allocation – “increases or decreases in the MaSN did not result in a corresponding increase or decrease in reluctant leavers.”

But overall the report – which the relevant departments will now need to respond to – argues that the situation is “deeply injurious to Northern Ireland’s interests,” and ties the “export of talent” to a weakening of investment appetite and economic growth.

So what’s to be done? In recommendations that will likely be fiercely opposed by student representative groups in the nation, as well as being electorally unpopular, the report calls for tuition fees (currently £4,710 for full-time undergraduates) to increase as soon as practically possible, in 10 per cent increments, to be at the same level as England’s in ten years’ time .

This, it suggests, would financially support the increase in the MaSN number, which should be raised gradually “until the ratio of undergraduate places to the age cohort is similar to that in the remainder of the UK.”

A planned consultation on raising tuition fees was already announced by the Westminster government this autumn (though it hasn’t yet formally kicked off, and without a functioning executive it would be tricky to implement any changes). In theory there is also still a full review of higher education funding taking place somewhere behind the scenes – again, a presumed casualty of political paralysis.

In the meantime, and in response to big budget cuts imposed from Westminster, Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy cut 10 per cent of this year’s higher education budget. After consultation, it did recently dig up £1m in one-off funding for student hardship, and also suggested that student numbers did not look to have been affected by the cuts (which makes you wonder what was).

We heard this month that the UK government will pump something in the order of £2.5bn into Northern Ireland to plug budget deficits, if the executive will reassemble – it’s not clear whether this is going to move the needle though.

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