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Northern Ireland and the scandal of the ‘Third University’

Many students leave Northern Ireland due to the lack of university places. But they are usually those with family support. Those with little family finance to fall back on have to stay and are 'shackled' to home. The low maintenance support available in Northern Ireland leaves students and family with some very hard choices to make.

Earlier this week, Brian Murphy of Ulster University shed some very revealing light onto the situation in Northern Ireland and student numbers (See ‘The cap that doesn’t fit: Student numbers in Northern Ireland’ HEPI 18th February 2019). His main concerns centre around the fact that there is a cap on student numbers in the two universities in Northern Ireland and he looks largely from the perspective of the sustainability of the universities. These are his own university, the University of Ulster, and the Queen’s University of Belfast. Because fees are much lower than those in England, at £4,160 per annum for full-time students, the ‘government’ sets a cap on numbers through the somewhat slippery mechanism of capping additional funding. There has been a long-standing concern in both universities that the equivalent of a ‘Third University’ has to leave the province to go elsewhere in the UK or Ireland.

Using UCAS data from 2017, Brian Murphy notes 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”. This is a statistic that has been around for many years and fuels the idea of the 'Third University’ of lost students. Although students from the rest of the UK are welcome to come to Northern Ireland, they pay higher fees and are not arriving in sufficient numbers. Again this is a long-standing situation that Northern Ireland finds itself in. Those that do arrive from the rest of the UK become very concerned that they are made to feel they are displacing local students. However, this is not the case.

Using the latest statistics reported by UCAS in its '2018 End of Cycle Report Chapter 5: Geography', Northern Ireland had the highest application rate of the UK countries. However, according to Brian Murphy, a reduction of funding to the two universities has “removed 2,400 students in the last four years” in Northern Ireland. This has indeed meant that so-called 'widening access' students, who remain and are based at home or are commuter students, face increased tariff requirements to access even fewer places.

However, it is not noted that the two universities themselves made the cuts in student places unilaterally in 2015 and this was the subject of considerable criticism. It was reported widely at the time in Northern Ireland, but not outside, along with harsh job cuts in ‘University to slash student numbers’ Belfast Telegraph. June 18 2015 and ‘Ulster University: Funding reduction sees cuts to jobs and student places’ BBC News NI 18 June 2015. At the time, Queen’s University was facing the prospect of teaching its students at a level of below £6,000 per student. As Brian Murphy points out, the funding level available to teach students is still well below that of the rest of the UK. This is something that the Augar review is well aware of in its deliberations on funding and fees for England. But along the way, it seems the plight of the universities and their sustainability has overshadowed the worsening situation for the students and their families.

The level of fees is a ‘red herring’.

This is the case when considering widening access and opportunities for students from lower-income backgrounds. The UCAS report makes some very worrying observations about Northern Ireland that are acknowledged by Brian Murphy; but without any further explanation. Overall, the numbers applying to university from Northern Ireland last year were 24,015 out of a total of 615,555 in the UK for the 2018 entry. This is the highest rate of application by country and probably reflects the secondary education system in Northern Ireland.

However, the observation that Northern Ireland has the lowest acceptance rate of offers by country (at 74.3 %) is a cause for considerable alarm. The UCAS report in 'Section 4.2 Applicants from Northern Ireland are the most likely to turn down offers from UK providers’. Makes some valid comment but makes no attempt at an explanation with;

“It means applicants from Northern Ireland have the lowest acceptance rate (73.7 per cent). However, Northern Irish applicants are more likely to be made offers, but do firmly accept offers at a lower rate (74.3 per cent) than the rest of the UK (78.9 per cent, 82.6 per cent, and 84.3 per cent for England, Scotland, and Wales respectively). This suggests that the lower rate of entry for Northern Irish applicants is at least partly due to them being more likely to turn down all their offers.”

Could it be that the levels of fees and loans are still a deterrent? I doubt it and this should be discounted as a major problem for students with little family financial support.

Although Scottish domiciled applicants studying in Scotland do not pay fees, those from Northern Ireland do. In Northern Ireland, the fees are £4,160 if they study in Northern Ireland. But if they study in England they are £9,250 as they are for Scotland and Wales. The fees are all covered by loans in Northern Ireland wherever the students chose to study and this doesn’t seem to deter students from making applications initially. The loan burden for fees may be greater in time, but it doesn’t in itself present a ‘clear and present danger’ to their immediate living, time to study and wellbeing. Something else more important and pressing hits home when a decision has to be made.

Support for living costs is a ‘clear and present’ problem for students.

The more likely deterrent is the level of maintenance loan or grants available in Northern Ireland. This is much lower than the rest of the UK and it takes a determined student to set out on a degree course anywhere if there is little family support available. Travelling elsewhere in the UK definitely requires family support and the sums available, as either grants and/or loans, are shockingly low. This is now much lower than the equivalent support available to students in the rest of the UK. Students from England are showing up in Belfast come with better finance for living.

A report for the Scottish Government in 2017, ‘A New Social Contract for Students - Fairness, Parity and Clarity’ (see also: TEFS Can Scotland afford to be brave with student support and fees? 22nd November 2017 and 'Scottish Government Statement on Student Support: Good in Parts' 12th June 2018.) concluded that there was “Entitlement to a Minimum Student Income of £8,100 in both further and higher education”. This was the result of a serious look at the real level of living costs. Despite this observation, the current maximum that a student from a low-income family (below £18,999 pa) in Scotland can expect, through a combination of bursary and loan, is £7,625 per year. This drops off markedly as family income rises and could be as low as £4,750 for some hard-pressed families with several children. The assumption is that families will make up the shortfall that is clearly identified in the 2017 report. In England, the situation is better where currently maintenance loans available for student living away from home are up to £11,002 for outside London and £11,354 inside London. However, there is still a means test process and again there is an assumption that families will make up the difference in higher-earning families. For students from Wales, the equivalent is £8,100 for outside London and £10,124 inside London.

In contrast, let us now look at the current support available for Northern Ireland students as stated on the NI Direct Government www site.

“All eligible full-time students can get a Student Loan for Maintenance, but the exact amount you can borrow will depend on several factors, including your household income, where you live while you’re studying and whether you’re in the final year of your course. It’s also affected by any help you get through the Maintenance Grant”.

The loans available are £3,750 pa if you're living and attending college in Northern Ireland, £4,840 pa if you live elsewhere and £6,780 pa if the course is in London. There are maintenance grants available for the lowest income families and these are currently at a maximum of £3,475. But the additional loan then available is cut pro-rata. This is a massive shortfall for all students to match somehow.

As a result, students and families in Northern Ireland have much harder choices to make. If family support is not available then it would be foolhardy, or very brave, for a young person to set off to a University anywhere in the rest of the UK without access to a considerable amount of other income. Competing for part-time jobs in a strange city (including Belfast) would be daunting. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that many turn down offers later in the process when the financial realities strike home. Others opt to remain in Northern Ireland simply because they can stay at home and retain a local part-time job. Those estranged from their families are particularly hard hit in Northern Ireland.

What do students have to consider?

My experience has been that those from lower-income families struggle with very high levels of such work that is often well beyond what is sustainable for a good degree outcome. While others have time to thrive, they end up pleading for more time on assignments or timetable adjustments to accommodate job shifts. Low maintenance support is just not enough to mitigate these problems.

The issue of several siblings also seems to be overlooked. It presents a family with stark choices in deciding which children to support if they all do well at school. I came across one case when examining a PhD at the University of Cambridge a few years ago. The internal examiner, who was also the admissions tutor at a well-known college, was late and upset because a student from Northern Ireland had just turned down a place. She was the youngest of four and decided the family could not support her since they were also supporting older siblings. Furthermore, the ban on taking part-time jobs at Cambridge was a key factor. Apparently, the family did not accept the implied ‘charity’ of seeking support from the college and this is what had greatly upset the admissions tutor who was looking for ways to offer financial assistance. This was a tragedy for a talented student setting out in hope and then missing out on a rare chance.

The lack of planning and no government in 'Norn Iron'.

That one case above alone is the tragic result of a totally failed ‘government’ policy and lack of planning. There must be many more others now turning down places or taking a big risk and soldiering on with a lack of finance only to get lower grades. This is inherently unfair and an utter disgrace. Now the situation is becoming an even wider tragedy as events spiral out of control with no government in place to make decisions in difficult times. Brian Murphy is right to highlight this. His metaphor of students being “stuck ‘in irons’” resonates. But, to use the local vernacular, perhaps everyone in my former home is really “stuck ‘in Norn Iron”. Only those with sufficient wealth can help their children escape the shackles through higher education. Many others are stuck with an even steeper mountain to climb or they simply give up the challenge.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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