Time to address the brain drain

23 Apr 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 23 Apr 2021

Pic: Brett Jordan, Unsplash

During its short existence Northern Ireland’s only think tank Pivotal has made significant contributions to improving debate about some of the challenges we face.

The latest paper is on the brain drain, whereby so many of our young people go to university in GB, never to return.

Whilst it is commonplace and good for personal development for students from any region to leave home and study elsewhere Northern Ireland has both particularly high levels of educational migration and troublingly low rates of incoming students.

So in 2018/19 there were 17,000 students studying outside Northern Ireland – enough to populate an entire university. Only 3,470 come the other way. And once gone many – around 64% stay away, to which you can add the 15% of those studying here who move away to get jobs. That is an awful lot of lost talent.

The net result of this is that a region which produces extremely high levels of students going in to Higher Education does not see much of the benefits of its investment. And it leaves Northern Ireland with fewer people who have tertiary qualifications than its counterparts in the UK.

This is no small matter. There is a direct link between higher levels of graduates in the workplace and higher productivity – and Northern Ireland has low levels of productivity.

The bottom line is that although we produce high numbers of students because so many go away and never return we are left with an imbalanced skills market with an oversupply of young people with GCSEs but an undersupply of those with A levels and degrees.

This directly feeds into future economic growth because if we have skills shortages then those industries that cannot fill vacancies will either move elsewhere or not locate here in the first place. This will become even more important over time.

Pivotal is looking to stimulate a debate and answer some important questions.

The first is why so many choose to study elsewhere in the first place. Surprisingly there has been very little research carried out into this – a gap which Pivotal is aiming to plug through a survey which is available on its site.

There are two broad categories – those who want to study elsewhere to broaden their horizons, escape sectarianism or else attend what they perceive to be a better course elsewhere. Then there are those who study in GB because they can’t get onto a course at one of the local universities. There are many in the latter category. The demand for university places in Northern Ireland far outstrips supply of places. It is estimated that for every 100 home applicants there were only 60 available places in 2018/2019.

Student numbers here are capped at between 24,000 and 25,000 and have been so for more than a decade – and the Executive has not put in additional funds to increase them. Indeed annual grant allocations fell from £214m to £185m between 2009 and 2015. This equates to approximately 13% in cash terms and 24% in real terms. The potential lever for the universities to plug some of the gap by increasing fees has been denied them.

It is inevitable, and even very healthy for students who want to study to go elsewhere but large numbers do want to study here and can’t get a place. Giving more funding for more places would help to resolve that one, but the report is less clear on whether there is a solution to the other.

It states: “Students and graduates expect excellent infrastructure and facilities associated with large cities, such as reliable transport, broadband etc”. It also references perceived sectarianism as a motivation for leaving Northern Ireland but there is no mention of the relative performance of our universities, specifically in teaching undergraduates. League Tables in education are not universally lauded. However they do have an influence when students are making their minds up where to study. The Guardian League Table is widely used and assesses what universities have to offer purely from an undergraduate perspective. Its latest rankings put Queens at 46 and Ulster at 61.  In contrast there are no less than five Scottish universities in the top 20. Perhaps if Queens and Ulster were perceived to be better by potential applicants they might lose less to other universities?

This may be grossly unfair but perceptions do matter and also need to be addressed.

The bigger picture shows that too many young people are studying elsewhere and too few return. Yet there is no strategy to address this. We know that graduates, both now and even more so in the future are extremely important to the future growth of the economy because of their contribution to higher skills, productivity and economic growth.

Yet at a time when graduate talent is at a premium Northern Ireland has cut investment in higher education and many of those who we have collectively invested an awful lot of money through the schools system graduate elsewhere and never return.

The report observes: “There is an absence of policy thinking about whether, or how, Northern Ireland should actively seek to encourage young people to stay at home for studies or return home after graduation.”

This area is one that needs to be addressed with urgency and Pivotal is to be commended for starting the debate. Universities need to be very much part of a strategic planning process where we can provide the right people with the right skills to give employers based here and those contemplating inward investment the confidence they need to thrive.


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