NI and third-level student mobility

Serious decline in numbers has occurred

Sir, – It was 85 years ago that the Irish Association for Cultural, Economic and Social Relations was founded with the central aim of promoting better understanding and relations between people on the island of Ireland, North and South. Clearly, there is still much work to do.

On September 18th, you carried an article with the heading “Third-level students from North deterred”. It summarised an important report on student mobility produced as part of a joint research programme between the ESRI and the Shared Island Unit at the Department of the Taoiseach.

The report pointed to the very low number of undergraduate students from Northern Ireland who attend higher education institutions in the Republic. In 2020-21, such Northern students made up just 0.6 per cent of the State’s total third-level body.

I attended the launch of the report at the ESRI on Monday on behalf of the Irish Association and the Trinity College Dublin Northern Ireland Association.


Both organisations are deeply concerned at the very low number of Northerners now attending Southern universities, especially Trinity College and UCD.

Some 50 years ago students from Northern Ireland made up a significant percentage of the student body at Trinity, as I can personally attest to. This was also true about the student make-up of UCD. In spite of the “Troubles”, numbers kept up well and the two institutions provided an important link between the peoples of Ireland, North and South, in those difficult times.

Ironically, it is in the last two decades that serious decline in numbers has occurred. This valuable report has highlighted a number of the factors at the root of this change. They include the points equivalence between A-levels and Leaving Certificates which was changed in the early 2000s to the disadvantage of A-levels. To apply for some courses requires four A-levels, which few Northern students take.

The different timing between announcement by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and CAO of offers of university places militates against Northern students taking up Southern university places. Availability and cost of accommodation in Dublin deters Northern students. In sharp contrast, southern students coming to Belfast are given priority by Queen’s University in their allocation of places in halls of residence.

The report makes some useful recommendations for improving the situation. These include a re-examination of the equivalence between A-levels and Leaving Cert and the language requirement for Southern entry.

Other approaches were suggested at the launch of the report such as a meaningful quota for Northern students or a separate admissions stream which exists in some places for students from different jurisdictions or educational systems.

The evidence on the serious lack of student mobility in Ireland has now been presented and analysed. It is up to the Government and the universities to take effective action. – Yours, etc,

Prof Emeritus BRIAN M WALKER,

President of the Irish Association,