1. The aim of the project was to examine the patterns of participation in higher education among Protestant and Catholic young people in Northern Ireland, and to suggest likely future patterns.
2. Previous research had highlighted a number of current patterns in participation. A large and increasing proportion of school leavers with 2 or more A level passes entered higher education. Within the general increase in participation levels, there has been a marked increase in the participation of women, students from Catholic schools and students from manual backgrounds. There has been an increasing proportion of entrants to higher education who leave Northern Ireland and this group is disproportionately comprised of students from Protestant schools. Finally, there has been a marked increase in entrants to the two Northern Ireland universities from outside Northern Ireland.
3. In addition to the empirical patterns summarised above, there has been an increase in the personal cost of higher education as a consequence of a shift from grants towards loans.
4. Two research studies were carried out to gather qualitative evidence in order to explain the reasons behind some of these patterns. The views of pupils were assessed by running 27 focus groups involving 230 pupils in the sixth form of 14 grammar and secondary schools. The views of parents were assessed by running 8 focus groups involving 75 parents of pupils in the sixth form of grammar and secondary schools.
5. The research studies suggested the following conclusions. There was no evidence to suggest that the demand for higher education would decrease. The main reason for the high level of leavers from Northern Ireland was seen to be the high entry grades to certain courses in Queen's University and the University of Ulster. There was a general lack of information on the new arrangements for student income. Although there was no evidence that the increased personal cost of higher education, or the move to student loans, was putting people off applying to university, it did seem to influence the preferred destination and would encourage applicants to stay in Northern Ireland.
6. In the absence of additional places in higher education in Northern Ireland it seemed likely that the pressures created by high entry grade levels to the two Northern Ireland universities would increase. This would be exacerbated by two processes: financial pressures would increase the proportion of applicants to higher education who would wish to stay in Northern Ireland, and there had been an increase in applicants from outside Northern Ireland. Grade inflation in entry to the two local universities would mean that the proportion of those obliged to leave Northern Ireland would remain high and may well increase. More generally, the pressures thus created would bear down particularly heavily on school leavers with lower A Level grades.
7. The most likely outcome would be:
a) that the outflow of young Protestants would increase, reducing diversity within Queen's University and the University of Ulster and
b) that there would be increased pressures on Catholics from manual backgrounds and a likely reduction in their participation in higher education.
8. An increase in places in higher education in Northern Ireland would ameliorate some of these pressures and help to preserve some of the social gains that were identified in higher education over recent years. Extra places could be created either through one or both of the two Northern Ireland universities, through franchised courses in Further Education colleges, through encouraging applicants to consider alternative sub-degree routes with ladders to degree programmes, or through alternative modes of degree level study, such as part time and extended study. The first of these options was the most expensive, and may not target the groups most affected by the pressures referred to above, but provided for the highest quality of provision.
9. The social gains in participation in higher education may have occurred by good fortune rather than design. Given that they have been achieved, it may require positive action to enhance or even maintain these social gains.
Gallagher, Osborne and Cormack (1997): Higher Education Participation in Northern Ireland. Higher Education Quarterly, 51(1), 68-85.
(Note: others are under consideration)
Gallagher, Osborne and Cormack (1996): Attitudes to Higher Education. Paper to the European Conference on Educational Research, Seville, Spain (September)
Gallagher, Osborne and Cormack (1996): Access to Higher Education and student loans in Northern Ireland. Paper to a Council of Europe Conference on 'Overcoming Financial Barriers to Higher Education', Sofia, Bulgaria (May).
Gallagher, Osborne and Cormack (1996): Attitudes to Higher Education. CCRU Seminar, Linenhall Library, Belfast (February).