In implementing Graduating to Success, my Department has established a project group to facilitate cross-border cooperation and student mobility. A key part of that project is addressing the relevant recommendations from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation and the CBI joint business council study of obstacles to cross-border undergraduate education. In particular, my Department’s Careers Service continues to build the knowledge of its advisers to ensure that students are fully informed about opportunities in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. An anomaly on student finance has been resolved, and, since 2013, students from Northern Ireland studying in the Republic of Ireland have had access to a repayable student contribution loan and other financial support.
The Department of Education is in the lead regarding A-level and leaving certificate equivalences. However, a number of individual universities have introduced interim measures to attract students from here. My officials are working with officials in the Department of Education and Skills to research and analyse cross-border student flows. A joint report that will inform policy development is scheduled for completion in the autumn.
I met Minister Quinn of the Department in April 2014 to discuss matters of mutual interest. I have also written to his successor, Minister Jan O’Sullivan, and will discuss matters with her at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting this Friday.
Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that we are nearly at the end of the autumn, even though you would not think it with the weather, does he have any indication of what will be in the report that he is teasing us with?
I am not sure what the weather is like in Fermanagh, but, in my mind, the autumn extends to the end of November at least, so there is still time for the report to come through. As I have said on a number of occasions, there is no lack of willingness in this jurisdiction in the Department of Education or my Department to address the issues and the barriers to student flows on the island of Ireland. Most of the obstacles lie in the policies and practices of the Government in the Irish Republic, and at times we have to question their willingness to be proactive in addressing some of these points. If the Member has any influence, I encourage him to use it, alongside the influence of others, to see how we can address the issues.
The Minister will know that my constituency extends from four miles from the border to 50 miles from the border and, while a very small number of people might want to extend their mobility to take advantage of classes in the Irish Republic, the vast majority do not. Will he give the House an assurance that whatever resource he deploys will not be at the expense of promoting mobility for students within Northern Ireland who are trying to avail themselves of classes that they will require to get themselves into full-time employment in this country?
It is important that we look at mobility in a range of ways. As the Member says, we have mobility within Northern Ireland, but some students may wish to study in Great Britain, and others may wish to study in the Republic of Ireland. It is not only geographical proximity that will influence decisions but the availability of courses. While I want a very broad range of courses to be provided in Northern Ireland, there may be areas in which certain specialisms are more effectively taught elsewhere in these islands — I stress that in the broadest sense — and it is important that we facilitate mobility. It is also the case that, when we have to invest in specialist equipment or specialist teaching, neither jurisdiction on the island has the resources to invest in that alone, so there may be opportunities for joint initiatives.
So it is important that we do not just see mobility on the island as just a cross-border issue; it may well be about ensuring choice right across the island and, indeed, these islands.
I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Minister, some universities in the South have put in place interim measures. What steps are you taking to ensure that students who want to do high-quality courses that are available in the South but not here have good opportunities do so?
Most of the courses available in the Republic of Ireland are offered in Northern Ireland. There are a very small number of exceptions. Veterinary science is one example, and there are also opportunities in Great Britain, notably Scotland, in that regard. It is important that, first, we signpost people so that they are aware of the opportunities. The number of students from Northern Ireland going to the South is remarkably small, given that we share an island, and has been quite small for the last number of years. There is a greater flow of students northwards. The issue that we have is multifaceted but considerably unbalanced. A lot of work has to be done to redress the balance so that we have a natural flow, based on informed choice, in both directions on the island.
I have not had the opportunity to have any discussions in the past week or so since the referendum. However, the situation remains largely unchanged on the back of the outcome. The Member will be aware of the fees that students from here are charged. There was a lot of speculation before the referendum about what would be the situation in the event that Scotland opted for independence. In that context, all the legal advice, and the Scottish Government's advice, was that students from Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the European Union would have to be treated the same as Scottish students.