Minister urged to help counter the 'brain drain'

EMPLOYMENT Minister Sir Reg Empey will be urged later today to consider measures to encourage more Protestant undergraduates to study in Northern Ireland.

A motion is to be raised at the Assembly after it was claimed the latest figures show three-quarters of Ulster students who choose further education institutions on the mainland are Protestants.

Unionist MLAs are concerned the majority who leave to further their education on the mainland opt not to return in the medium to short term, resulting in a so-called 'brain drain'.

In contrast, as a majority of school leavers from the Catholic community prefer to continue their education at home, Protestant students are in the minority at the two main local academical institutions.

In its current term, the University of Ulster, across its four campuses, confirmed it had 11,099 students registered as Roman Catholic. This was in comparison to 6,378 Protestant students.

A spokesperson for Queen's University said: "UCAS, the national application system, does not collect information on the religious background of students but, in 2008-09, of those who declared a religious affiliation, 43.9 per cent of full time undergraduate students at Queen's identified themselves as Protestant, 56.1 per cent identified themselves as Catholic."

The joint motion by DUP MLAs Alex Easton and Jonathan Craig calls on the minister to bring forward measures to ensure students from a Protestant background are encouraged to opt for Northern Ireland universities as a first choice, rather than other UK institutions.

Mr Easton claimed Protestant students did not feel welcome at local universities because of what he described as a religious imbalance.

"Sir Reg Empey has a responsibility, not only as minister but as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, to correct the imbalance," he claimed.

Mr Craig said that universities, as publicly funded bodies, had a responsibility to "correct the religious imbalance that exists".