Institutional barriers limit cross-border student mobility

The Economic and Social Research Institute in partnership with the Shared Island Unit in the Department of the Taoiseach have published new research on undergraduate student mobility between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. Drawing on administrative data and stakeholder interviews, the findings show relatively low levels of student mobility between Ireland and Northern Ireland, influenced by differences in higher education entry requirements, the costs of studying and, in Northern Ireland, by the cap on university places.

Main findings

  • In 2020/21, 1,170 students from Ireland went to study in Northern Ireland while 1,255 students from Northern Ireland attended a higher education institution in Ireland. Levels of cross-border mobility are relatively low: those from Ireland made up 2.4 per cent of students in Northern Ireland while students from Northern Ireland made up only 0.6 per students in Ireland.
  • More students from Ireland go to study in the rest of the UK than in Northern Ireland, with numbers staying stable over time at just over 4,000 each year.
  • There is a relatively large outflow of students from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK (13,685 in 2020/21), reflecting high levels of competition for places, with very little mobility in the opposite direction.
  • Geography plays an important role, with students from Northern Ireland more likely to apply for courses in areas close to the Border and in Dublin. In contrast, Irish students moving to Britain are spread across regions.
  • A substantial proportion of applications to study elsewhere are for highly competitive medical-related courses, indicating the role of availability of places in driving mobility decisions.
  • Students from Northern Ireland can apply through the Central Applications Office (CAO) process. However, applicants need to take four A-levels to achieve maximum points and only a handful of students in Northern Ireland do so. In addition, the language requirement for many courses limits access for students from Northern Ireland where smaller numbers take a foreign language at A- or GCSE-level compared to the number of Leaving Certificate students.
  • Only a minority of applicants from Northern Ireland or Britain make it all the way through to being offered and accepting a place in Irish higher education institutions, partly because they are less likely than those from Ireland to meet minimum entry requirements. However, even when offered a place, those from Northern Ireland are less likely to accept the place. This may be because they are using an application elsewhere as a safety-net in securing a high-demand course and/or they receive the offer later for Ireland than for UK universities.
  • Similarly, acceptance rates for UK universities are lower for Irish applicants than for those from the UK.
  • The decision to study elsewhere reflects the complex interaction of tuition/registration fees, financial supports and other living costs. Students from Ireland generally face lower accommodation costs by moving elsewhere, though a significant proportion of students have no such costs as they live in the parental home.

Implications for policy

Stakeholders highlight the value of mobility for students themselves, for higher education institutions and for enhancing cross-border cooperation. The findings indicate:

  • School-based guidance could provide greater awareness of options in other jurisdictions, a process which could be usefully supported by outreach work by higher education institutions.
  • There is a case to reexamine CAO point equivalences for A-levels, given the very small group of Northern Ireland candidates who take four A-levels, and to look at modern foreign language requirements, given much lower take-up of modern foreign languages in Northern Ireland.
  • Decisions about where to study take place, for students, against a broader backdrop of rising costs and access to differential levels of financial supports. Current accommodation costs and lack of housing availability are undoubtedly barriers to students moving from Northern Ireland (and the rest of the UK). While financial supports are in place for students in both jurisdictions (though the level and nature vary), there is a broader issue of the extent to which such supports cover the costs of participation.

Launching the report, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD, said:  

“Today's report shows us once more the vital role education plays in strengthening relations North and South. I am pleased to launch this ESRI Shared Island report which provides some really valuable insights on student mobility across this island and also between Ireland and Britain. I am committed to working with Higher and Further Education Institutions and with partners in the UK Government and Northern Ireland to make it as easy as possible for students to choose to study in either jurisdiction. This is really important in deepening our connections both North/South and East/West and in ensuring that young people have access to the best possible educational opportunities.”

Prof. Emer Smyth, co-author of the report, notes:

“Current higher education entry requirements in Ireland appear to disadvantage students from Northern Ireland. An adjustment of the points equivalences would likely make studying in Ireland a more realistic option for those from Northern Ireland. Although only one barrier to mobility, a change would have an important symbolic value in being seen as welcoming to students from Northern Ireland.”

Dr. Merike Smyth, co-author of the report, notes:

“Student mobility has the potential not only to benefit individual students but to provide a more diverse learning environment and to foster greater cohesion between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The study findings highlight the scope for greater cooperation across the island of Ireland in meeting student needs.”