The movement of college students across the border has been swinging significantly in a southerly direction as Brexit approaches.
Although students from the Republic studying in Northern Ireland still exceed those coming south to institutions here, they now outnumber them by less than two-to-one instead of nearly four-to-one earlier this decade.
Students from this country going north fell by 38% in four years, from 3,520 to 2,195. At the same time, northern students attending third-level colleges here increased by nearly a quarter, from 970 to 1,200.
The data in a report published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) compare student movements between 2011-12 and the college year that ended in summer 2016 when UK voters decided to leave the EU.
The biggest headline fall was in northward ‘student migration’ for undergraduate programmes, down by 44%. Part-time study in Northern Ireland by people from the Republic dropped 71%, but undergraduates coming south to study jumped by 30%.
Although Northern students still represent just 0.6% of total higher education enrolments here, the potential for disruption to the increases could be another concern around Brexit.
While much of the education focus of Brexit discussions has been on potential impacts to staffing opportunities and Ireland-UK research collaborations, Higher Education Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor stressed the importance of student mobility and the contribution cross-border students make to their colleges.
“Our campuses are richer for this. It is vital that we continue to support these cross-border flows,” she wrote in a foreword to the report.
It was prepared by the HEA and Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy.
“We are heading into a period of uncertainty but I am confident that cross-border higher education activity...can continue to flourish and maintain its critical role of bringing deep cultural and personal value to academic life on the island of Ireland,” Ms Mitchell O’Connor wrote.
Under current fee arrangements, students from NI or the Republic pay the same as local students when they cross the border to attend a publicly-funded college.
The maximum annual fee for an undergraduate student in Northern Ireland is £4,160 (currently over €4,600), 9% higher than in 2016. Republic of Ireland undergraduate fees are €3,000 which remain unchanged since the last increase in 2015.