Peace brings study boom to Ulster

Noel McAdam

Further education colleges in Northern Ireland have benefited from the "peace dividend" with a surge in applications from students from Eire.

Several of the 17 colleges and its two universities are reporting that their intakes of students from the Irish Republic have increased by more than 30 per cent in the last year, with a further sharp increase in general inquiries about further and higher education.

For the first time the total number of southern students studying north of the border is expected to top 4,000 - an increase of more than 1,000 in a single year.

The increase is most noticeable in applications to Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education and Queen's University, Belfast, which are anticipating an increase of 204 students from the South.

The trend is being viewed by college heads and Government officials as a direct result of the year long terrorist cease-fire and the attraction of courses, including higher and degree qualifications and better facilities at colleges in the north.

Even before the cease-fire, southern students had begun to flock to the Londonderry and Coleraine campuses of the University of Ulster which now has 2,000 students from the Republic. But there is a clear indication that the fragile peace is helping.

The influx comes at a time when up to 40 per cent of school-leavers from inside Northern Ireland travel to mainland Britain for further and higher education, particularly at higher diploma level.

Student unions have responded to the potential increased tension on campuses by drawing up a plan to build on the peace.

This month all the colleges and institutes are staging special events designed to bring Catholic and Protestant students together.

The events include seminars targeting prejudice, and promoting anti-sectarianism as well as debates on the political way forward for Ulster.

The two merged organisations, the National Union of Students and Union of Students in Ireland, have for the first time hammered out a common policy on Northern Ireland.

Two major conferences on the unions in the North and South called for the creation of a "more acceptable and inclusive environment" for students and a promotion of community relations issues.

Regional NUS official, Peter O'Neill, said: "It has been a challenging and stimulation experience to address these issues head-on and we hope it will become an integral part of the student experience in Northern Ireland."

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