Student number cap in NI education viewed as an “economic handbrake”

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MPs have cautioned that the cap on student numbers in Northern Ireland’s universities is hindering economic progress, acting as an “economic handbrake.”

The control of local student numbers in Northern Ireland relies on the utilization of the Maximum Aggregate Student Number (MASN) formula.

The cap is determined by the Department for the Economy at Stormont and is contingent on the availability of funding.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) MPs report that the student number cap makes it challenging to attract investment and hampers business growth.

In 2020, the student cap for Northern Ireland’s two universities ranged from 6,000 to 7,000, while also taking into account higher tuition fees.

Earlier this year, former Economy Minister Gordon Lyons stated that expanding the number of university places would necessitate either increased tuition fees or diverting funds from other Stormont departments.

At present, students from Northern Ireland attending local universities are charged approximately £4,500 per year in tuition fees, whereas those studying in England face fees exceeding £9,000 annually.

The committee at Westminster stated that the student number cap prompts numerous students from Northern Ireland to seek higher qualifications elsewhere, which they subsequently utilize in employment outside Northern Ireland, both in the UK and internationally.

The committee emphasized that this poses a hindrance to the Northern Ireland economy by deterring international and other companies from investing, impeding their capacity to fill job vacancies and expand their existing investments.

The MPs suggested that the UK government should collaborate with the Northern Ireland Executive to examine the possibility of increasing the cap on university numbers. This would facilitate the retention of local talent and foster growth in the high-skilled sectors of the Northern Ireland economy.

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Due to a political deadlock at Stormont, the executive has not convened since February. Currently, approximately 28% of students from Northern Ireland are pursuing their studies in other parts of the UK.

Normally, around one-third of this cohort chooses to return to Northern Ireland for employment or further studies after completing their graduation.

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