NI Universities show strong religious imbalance in student numbers

The Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry, was asked yesterday by MLAs Jim Allister and Gregory Campbell how many Protestants attended universities in Northern Ireland. The answer – only one third of students.

Firstly let’s be clear – it doesn’t matter when students achieve a university place what religion they are. What I am more interested are the reasons behind the figures. Pupil numbers in terms of Secondary and Grammar schools in Northern Ireland can be found on the Department of Education website.

The University of Ulster was asked for comment on the BBC report yesterday and said,

It is a sad reflection of society here that the religious composition of our student population should be a matter for public comment

Which I thought was interesting given the amount of Equality Legislation we have in Northern Ireland – or perhaps UU don’t make employment returns to the aforementioned QUANGO? [Clearly two different fruits but I’m illustrating the slightly disingenuous point being made]

Jim Allister,

 There are 2,800 students from the Republic of Ireland studying at the University of Ulster which suggests to me that the UU for some strange reason is being more successful in recruiting Republic of Ireland students that it is in recruiting local Protestant students from the controlled sector

From BBC Radio Ulster this morning

It is indisputable that universities have been failing to attract adequately from within Northern Ireland sufficient students from the controlled sector

Then back to the report [again JA],

another big concern was Protestant children not attaining the grades they needed to get into university, we have had research that shows that..

Is Jim perhaps hinting at the Dawn Purvis research in some way, a quote from her report “Educational Underachievement and the Protestant Working Class”,

The reality is that in non-grammar schools, the gaps in performance between those at Maintained (predominantly Catholic) and those at Controlled Schools (predominantly Protestant) is significant. Given the related socio-economic backgrounds it seems peculiar that the performance between Maintained and Controlled schools is so dissimilar, especially when we consider performance by Free School Meal Entitlement

[Again referencing from DPs work] The Equality Commission’s Report Every Child an Equal Child [sets your mind to Animal Farm methinks], indicated the following in November 2008,

A socially disadvantaged pupil in a Catholic (Maintained) school will have a 1 in 5 chance of going to University, compared to a similar pupil in a Protestant (Controlled) school, who has a 1 in 10 chance

When followed through to the percentage share of students achieving at least 2 A levels – Maintained Voluntary Grammars scored – 88.4% and Controlled Grammars – 78.6%. Is this the smoking gun that Jim is talking about?

Obviously the religion which students practice is not the point here but perhaps one of the questions we should now be asking is why are students making these decisions? Perhaps it is simply that Protestant students are actually more likely to go to GB [for socio ecocomic or educational reasons] than to study  here in Northern Ireland? Clearly it seems, from the figures released from DEL, that students from the North of the Republic of Ireland are keen to study in the Magee campus as it suits them geographically. Apparently less than a fifth of students at Magee College in Londonderry are Protestant. Whilst the report highlights the disparity in religious breakdown I am more concerned if the evidence suggests that one educational sector is failing; or as Dawn put it,

the educational non-progressor was most likely to be a Protestant working class male

Of course we don’t know that to be the case; but this is an area in which I feel further research would be extremely valuable.

Born and living in Northern Ireland, I’m a Lecturer by trade and a pragmatic Unionist by design. Interests include Middle Eastern / African politics, British cinema and sea fishing!