Why don’t students cross the border any more?

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

One column leads to another. Responding to my colleague Patricia Clarke’s Note from the Next Door Neighbours last month on the row about cross-border pupils using their grannies’ addresses to obtain school places in Derry, an irate parent has contacted us about his daughter’s cross-border higher education disappointment. This man is a Northern Ireland resident who owns a small business and pays his taxes in the Republic. This summer his daughter received As in her four A-level exams, the highest mark achievable in the British school-leaving exam (since no student in the UK ever takes more than four subjects at A-level, except in extraordinary circumstances). Her dream had been to do medicine at a university in the Republic, but no Southern university would take her, since four As at A-level apparently does not equate to the ridiculous 590-600 points demanded to do medicine there. Plenty of British universities were only too happy to take her, and she has now started her medical degree in Manchester.

This story started me thinking about the extraordinary ignorance that exists in second-level schools about the possibilities of students doing their undergraduate studies at a university in the other Irish jurisdiction. Some years ago I gave the prize day address at a prominent Northern Catholic grammar school in a town close to the border. This took place in December so I was able to peruse the list of that year’s school-leavers to see to which university these high-achieving young students had gone to. There were over 100 names on the roll of honour, of which just one had gone to a Southern university.

It works – or rather doesn’t work – in both directions. A young Dubliner, one of the winners of this year’s Universities Ireland-IBEC-CBI business-sponsored Masters awards, who is beginning a Master’s degree at Queen’s University Belfast, told me earlier this month how struck he had been by how few Southerners there were at Queen’s. This is a far cry from the situation in the mid-nineties, when University of Ulster was attracting 17% of its full-time degree students from the South, and Queen’s around half that figure. The most recent UCAS British university admission figures show the number of students from the Republic taking up places in Northern universities falling from 700 in 2004 to less than half that in 2006. This means that there is now virtually no cross-fertilisation of education and culture represented by a flow of Southern students into Northern Ireland. At the very least, that is a great pity at a time when ‘learning to live together on the island’ is one of the mantras of a successful, but yet to be bedded down, peace process.

Similarly in the South, Higher Education Authority figures show that fewer than 1% of higher education students come from Northern Ireland. Even at Trinity College Dublin, which until the 1970s used to be a place bright Northern Ireland students from a Protestant background looked to as a real alternative to Oxford, Cambridge and other leading British universities, the proportion of students from Northern Ireland is now down to 3%.

In the 1990s the main reason Southern students went North was the absence of fees and the ability to bring their maintenance grants with them. The availability of funding appears not to be the open sesame to cross-border student flows it once was. That is Universities Ireland’s experience anyway. The business-sponsored Masters bursaries referred to earlier, offering students a ?20,000 award for a year’s study in the other Irish jurisdiction, are among the most generous anywhere in Britain and Ireland for postgraduate students at this level. Yet despite a very significant level of publicity around the nine universities, there were precisely 38 applications for these bursaries this year, half a dozen of them so sub-standard as not to warrant serious consideration.

So what are the chill factors stopping Irish students considering universities across the border? We know that Northern universities, unlike their British counterparts over the water, do not need to recruit undergraduates in the South because of the UK Government’s cap on student numbers in Northern Ireland. But with the boom of recent years in the number of undergraduate applications now at an end, the same cannot be said for Southern universities. And at a time of increasing student fees in the North, does not the ‘free fees’ regime in the South now not make the South’s universities even marginally attractive to Northerners? Or is a key chill factor here the very high cost of living – and in particular the cost of student accommodation – in cities like Dublin and Galway? If any readers of this column have any answers to this conundrum, this writer would be most interested to hear them.

Andy Pollak

P.S. Readers may be interested to know that the phenomenon of second level students travelling across borders to go to school is not restricted to Ireland. The French newspaper Libération carried an article recently on a government report which showed that 7,000 French pupils from the border region adjoining Belgium now go to Belgian schools. Would the two Departments of Education perhaps co-operate on a survey to find out what the equivalent level is in the Irish border region?

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.