A “blind eye” is being turned to problems faced by the Protestant community when it comes to higher education, an MLA has said.
Peter Weir – the DUP’s education spokesman – was hitting out at a claim by universities minister Dr Stephen Farry that there is no “pervasive under-representation” of Northern Irish Protestants in higher education.
Mr Weir said figures cited by the minister do nothing to allay fears that young Protestant people lag behind their Catholic contemporaries.
On January 19, the News Letter reported that the proportion of students enrolling in the Province’s higher education bodies – Queen’s University Belfast, the Ulster University, the teaching colleges and the Open University – stood at 29.5 per cent Protestant to 45.3 per cent Catholic in 2014/15.
This is out-of-kilter with the population at large; when looking at 18, 19 and 20-year-olds for example, 48.5 per cent are either Catholic or Catholic-raised, and 43.3 per cent Protestant or Protestant-raised.
One possible reason cited to explain the gap was the influence of a “chill factor” felt by some Protestants at Catholic-dominated universities.
Dr Farry responded: “Let me be clear, there is no pervasive under-representation of Protestants in higher education and there is no evidence that a ‘chill factor’ exists within our higher education sector.”
He went on to say that in 2013/14, the proportion of Northern Ireland school-leavers entering higher education anywhere in the world – not just Northern Ireland – was about 55 per cent Catholic, 35 per cent Protestant and 10 per cent ‘other’.
He added that this “closely reflects the religious backgrounds of 51 per cent, 39 per cent and 10 per cent recorded for the school-leaver population in 2013/14”.
Mr Weir said the figures Dr Farry had cited “do not help ease concern over university enrolments for the unionist community, and indeed throw in sharp spotlight the extent of the problem as highlighted by the News Letter”.
He said: “The figures clearly show an under-representation of Protestants in third level education, and the full figures for all enrolments throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland – while showing the gap, are not as great as purely within Northern Ireland – reinforces two problems.”
The first concerns the need for a fresh focus on working-class Protestant boys.
In October, the Equality Commission produced a report titled Key Inequalities in Education, which found “Protestants persistently have lower levels of attainment than Catholics” in GCSEs and A-Levels.
It suggested the collapse of manufacturing and a lack of role models may be among the causes.
The second is that it is “obvious” some degree of chill factor did exist – something “to which a blind eye is being turned”.
Mr Weir concluded: “There needs to be a proper examination of these concerns rather than being complacent with statistics that don’t back up the minister’s case.”