Number of NI students starting university falls despite record applications

The number of first year students from Northern Ireland gaining admission to higher education across the UK has fallen, the university admissions service has revealed.

he fall comes despite local pupils outperforming others from across the UK as A-level exams were taken for the first time since the start of the Covid pandemic.

UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service) also said there have been fewer places available in Northern Ireland universities for local students who want to continue their studies here.

At the start of the 2022/23 academic year, UCAS statistics show that 40.7% of 18-year-olds here started an undergraduate course, which remains a higher percentage than any other part of the UK.

While that’s lower than the equivalent figure for the previous year, it’s a sharp increase on the last year exams were held in 2019, when just over 35% of 18-year-olds started a university education.

The declining number of students heading to university comes despite UCAS previously reporting a record proportion of 18-year-olds from Northern Ireland had applied to courses.

Overall, 13,650 Northern Ireland students had been accepted to start a university course by September 22, 28 days after A-level results day, with around 8,000 of applicants female and 5,600 male.

The university entry figures were around 14,900 at the same stage in both 2020 and 2021.

The decline in new university students has fallen by an even greater margin for those aged over 21.

In 2021, 2,200 ‘mature’ students entered university, but that fell to just 1.750 in 2022.

The figures also show where in the UK that Northern Ireland students are heading to university.

The majority remain in Northern Ireland, with 9.600 staying at home, down around 1,000 from the same time in 2020 and 600 fewer than last year. Approximately 3,140 have gone to England, 690 to Scotland and 220 to Wales.

The number of Northern Ireland students heading to university in the Republic of Ireland has also fallen, from 677 in 2021 to 650 this month.

The decline in Northern Ireland figures is in contrast to the nationwide picture, with record numbers of 18-year-olds beginning their university education this week.

Figures released on Thursday show 275,390 students have been accepted onto a course, higher than the 272,500 (+1%) last year and up from 239,460 in 2019 (+ 15%) – the last time results were based on exams.

The overall university entry rate for 18-year-olds is 37.3%.

The statistics also show that more students are using the Clearing process to select their university course, with a record number securing a place at university through that method – 33,280, up from 24,100 in 2021 and from 33,000 in 2019.

“This year we see a record number of students about to start their course at university or college based on exams results,” said UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant.

“We predicted Clearing would be dynamic this year and I am pleased to see record. numbers of UK 18-year-old students secure a place in Clearing. This includes significant numbers of students making more ambitious choices by using the digital tools we make available to them. With high demand for university places, it also shows that students are now confidently using a more digital and personalized Clearing to explore other options available to them.

“For students who are still considering their options, UCAS is on hand to help them make an informed decision that best suits their aspirations. There remains plenty of choice with more than 22,000 courses available in Clearing, along with a range of apprenticeship opportunities.”

Many Northern Ireland pupils feel disadvantaged as the number of local students universities can admit is capped, with the Maximum Aggregate Student Number (MASN) set by the Department for the Economy and dependant on how much funding is available from the department.

Universities can, however, recruit unlimited numbers of students from elsewhere in the UK and internationally.

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