In June 2008, my Department published research led by Professor Bob Osborne, and it examined the factors associated with the decision-making processes of local school-leavers who were seeking entry into higher education. The most important reason cited in determining pupil’s preferred choice was that the student considered a particular institution to be the best place to undertake their chosen course, while issues of reputation and location were also important to the respondents. In addition, the research concluded that the evidence points towards the fact that the bulk of those who leave Northern Ireland do so because they want to leave.
I also commissioned a Northern Ireland-specific report as part of the UK-wide Futuretrack study, which included the reasons given by Northern Ireland higher education applicants for institutional choices. Over half of those who chose to study outside Northern Ireland cited the fact that they wanted to study away from home, which compares with almost half of those who chose to study in Northern Ireland stating that they wanted to continue to live at home.
I thank the Minister for his reply. It is very good to see the Minister in place following the Halloween recess and the brilliantly successful Ulster Unionist annual party conference. The highlight of that conference was the Minister’s “Take no nonsense” address, a vein in which I am sure he will want to continue.
Will the Minister outline the progress that has been made with the C’Mon Over campaign? Will he also outline what statistics he has for both sections of the community opting to study in either Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland?
I can supply some figures. The total numbers of school-leavers from Protestant and Catholic communities leaving to study in Great Britain are very similar. In 2006-07, 1,137 Protestant and 1,105 Catholic school-leavers chose to study in institutions in Great Britain, while, in 2007-08, 1,142 Protestant and 1,060 Catholic school-leavers chose that route. However, one element is omitted from those figures: if we examine the total number of Northern Ireland-domiciled students studying in the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, it is likely that there are now more students from a Catholic background choosing to study outside Northern Ireland.
The number of students leaving Northern Ireland has dropped from one third of all students 10 years ago to just below one quarter of all students today. I hope that that trend continues in the future.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the economic benefits of international experience, what does the Minister judge to be the benefits of Northern Ireland students acquiring their third-level education outside Northern Ireland and bringing that experience back? What specific measures has his Department put in place to attract students who choose to study in other parts of the United Kingdom or in the Republic of Ireland to come back here and make a life for themselves and to attract students from there to do likewise?
In many respects, it is good that students choose to go to different institutions here and elsewhere, and there are many practical reasons involved. First, some students may wish to study a particular course that is not available here. Secondly, many of them may want an away-from-home experience, and those who come from the greater Belfast area may not consider that they are going away from home if they go to Queen’s University or the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, as they would be attending local universities.
We have no plans to encourage people to go away to study. In fact, the trend is moving in the opposite direction; student numbers are rising. However, because the number of students that we can fund is limited, the research was designed to find out whether people were leaving due to a chill factor or because of choice. The answer was that they left because of choice.
With regard to getting those students who studied outside Northern Ireland back, I agree entirely with the Member that it is a very valuable group of people. I have commissioned the C’Mon Over campaign, which has held a series of events at universities in Great Britain, and I will be attending an event in Dublin this month. Through that campaign, we promote Northern Ireland to the students, many of whom have come from here. I assure the Member that that has proved positive, and we have had a significant number of successes in bringing people back. The percentage of those coming back is rising, and, although the current economic downturn has slowed it to some extent — economic opportunity is one of the biggest issues — I believe that the strategy and the trajectory of what we are trying to achieve are correct.
The C’Mon Over campaign is designed to attract students to return after they have finished their education elsewhere. Has the Minister found any evidence to suggest that the students most reluctant to come home are those who have been through integrated education or those who are lesbian, gay or bisexual?
I do not have an answer to that question. The statistics that I rely on are compiled nationally, and I do not believe that they are broken down in that fashion. Also, I have no anecdotal evidence one way or the other, and, unless the Member can provide me with some information, I am not able to answer her question.