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The cap that doesn’t fit: Student numbers in Northern Ireland

  • 18 February 2019
  • By Brian Murphy

This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Brian Murphy, Director of Access, Digital and Distributed Learning at Ulster University.

Ulster University has four campuses across Northern Ireland and 27,000 students. It is the largest provider of undergraduate higher education in Northern Ireland and the second largest on the island of Ireland, after the federal National University of Ireland.

The University is a critical provider of widening access and participation and has a near equitable socio-economic profile of students by measure of origin from district of multiple deprivation.

Stuck ‘in irons’ is sailing parlance for a paralysed vessel: trapped with sails luffing in a head-on wind. It is a no-go zone for progress on water. Weathervanes and moored boats passively find the same position. (The term derives from an era when prisoners were held in leg irons on deck.)

The higher education system in Northern Ireland is stuck ‘in irons’. While progress on policy and participation continues in neighbouring jurisdictions, in Northern Ireland policy torpor has set in as we surpass two years without a working devolved Assembly and Executive. Yet our students are mobile between higher education systems across England, Scotland and Wales, with their diverging regulations on access and funding. 

In the midst of this, over one-third of students from Northern Ireland are higher education emigrants at a time when home funding is capped and places are reducing. As a result, inequity in access affects the vulnerable the most and threatens to reverse the social mobility success of the past decade.

The inequity arises out of relative disparities in funding and capped opportunity. Unchecked, it has the potential to deprive society here of economic, scientific, technological, civic and cultural growth, as well as much needed global integration.  

Student numbers and funding are key – and the cap doesn’t fit well in the mix.

First, the student numbers. According to UCAS statistics from the 2018 End of Cycle Report, Northern Ireland had, for 18-year-old applicants:

  1. the highest application rate by country (48 per cent);
  2. the highest entry rate by country (35 per cent);
  3. the highest home participation rate (by 90 per cent);
  4. the lowest acceptance rate by country of offers (74 per cent);
  5. the second highest acceptance rate outside the home country (35 per cent).

Put another way: despite high levels of aspiration (i), eligibility (ii) and participation (iii), many reject offers (iv) and many leave (v).

UCAS applications and acceptances data for 2017 found that of the 20,290 applicants, just over 9,600 took places in Northern Ireland (which has a funding cap) while 5,300 left to secure a place in England, Scotland or Wales (a direction of mobility in which funding is not capped). On the demographic scale of England, this level of departure would amount to five large universities. Two-thirds never return.

Secondly, the funding. The scale of departure distorts the balance in funding between those that stay and those that leave. Although the sticker prices for tuition fees are £4,160 in Northern Ireland and up to £9,250 elsewhere, accounting for average weighted block grants, net funding per student amounts to £8,280 and £9,890 respectively for each group. By the student numbers above, that translates to an average annual new entrant funding of almost £80 million for those that stay, compared with over £50 million for those that leave. In short, 40 per cent of funding is secured by the 35 per cent of mobile students. 

Only in one direction is funding controlled. Stay. For those that do, reductions in funding have removed 2,400 students in the last four years. Herein lies the social mobility dilemma: widening access students, who are predominantly study-at-home and commuter students, are facing increasing entry tariff for fewer places at home. 

Of course, mobility between systems is not necessarily undesirable. But it can be inequitable when the opportunities and funded rates for those who are most mobile and least debt averse are more favourable than for those who are not. In this context, widening participation students are in allegorical leg irons onboard the policy vessel that is stuck ‘in irons’.

Alternative opportunities in higher level apprenticeship provision are meagre by comparison. This too is challenging for Northern Ireland. Under the Barnett formula for distribution of public expenditure allocations to devolved regions, apprentice levy funds are treated as consolidated revenue and are not earmarked. As a result, the funds effectively disappear for employers in Northern Ireland.

While policy here stands still, policy elsewhere progresses. Yet, as publication of the Augar review of tertiary education in England approaches, none of the early signs on options would appear to mitigate the pressure on access for Northern Ireland. Indeed, the muted attainment threshold as an effective cap on access to student loans may well deepen disparity by displacement back to the home country.

Unfortunately, higher education in Northern Ireland is not alone in its policy dilemma. The present hiatus in devolved government foreshadows all development.  In October 2018, the fifth Peace Monitoring Report by Ulster University under the auspices of the independent Community Relations Council, noted the dire state of legislative and political paralysis since the Executive ceased to function at 5.00 pm on Monday 9 January 2017. It quotes the ‘lack of progress on social policy issues permeating every aspect of life …  disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable … growing inequalities in socio-economic conditions, educational attainment and health’. 

So, the cap doesn’t fit: thousands go east, as thousands in the west have gone without. 

What, then, might be done?  In the spirit of flying some kites, here are a few suggestions to redress the inequitable outcomes of the cap that doesn’t fit. Some do require an Executive to work with the sector.

  1. Take widening participation students out of the cap. (If the cap doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.)
  2. Within the cap, re-imagine expenditure on widening access to generate additional equity places for home-domiciled students. (If the cap doesn’t fit, make it fit.)
  3. Lobby to lift the lid on the Apprenticeship Levy and allow employers in Northern Ireland direct access to their Levy accounts, and the sector to gear higher-level apprenticeship provision accordingly. (If the cap doesn’t fit, double up with a scarf.)
  4. Engineer, in partnership with civically-minded banks, income-sharing agreements for students in which tuition is free in return for a share of future graduate earnings. (If the cap doesn’t fit, shop around for alternatives.)

Getting ‘out of irons’ on water involves dual control: rudder to steer as well as leaning the sail against the wind. Without an Executive we have no option but to be brave in our steer as a sector … and lean against the wind!


  1. Alan Bridle says:

    Very informative piece Brian. To aid broader consideration would you have any analysis on the ‘drop-out’ rates of students in our local universities in NI relative to the average in U.K. or Irish institutions?
    Thank you

  2. Apologies for the delay Alan. Another article took me back here today. I find no significant difference based on the
    following extracts from HESA as published 17/18 for non-continuation (i.e. those not retained the year after entry) for 15/16 to 16/17:
    England 6.3% (based on 274,410 full-time entrants)
    Scotland 5.8% (based on 25,890 full-time entrants)
    Wales 5.6% (based on 16,955 full-time entrants)
    NI 5.9% (based on 7,275 full-time entrants).

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