Figures showing that roughly 50 per cent more Catholics than Protestants are entering higher education each year indicate that more should be done to make universities welcoming for Protestants.
That was the reaction of DUP education spokesman Peter Weir to the statistics, released by the Department of Employment and Learning at the request of the News Letter, which appear to illustrate that the gap has widened during the past 10 years.
The figures partly reflect the fact there are now more Catholic teenagers than Protestants anyway in the Province.
However, exam underachievement by Protestant schoolchildren has long been a matter of concern for politicians, and news of the figures has spurred renewed calls for educational inequality across Northern Ireland to be tackled.
The figures obtained by the News Letter (listed in detail in the panel below) cover students who are joining Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Ulster (UU), Stranmillis and St Mary’s Colleges, and the Open University .
They only apply to those who were living in Northern Ireland to begin with – those coming from elsewhere to study have been excluded from the numbers.
Peter Weir, who completed his undergraduate degree in law and accountancy at Queen’s in 1991, said the numbers will have been influenced by a range of different factors – such as those who leave Northern Ireland to study elsewhere.
However, he also said there has been a “chill factor for a number of years” for Protestants studying on Northern Irish campuses (although he suggested that this applies more to the Students’ Unions, rather than the institutions themselves).
“I think in certain respects that one of the arguments is that hasn’t particularly improved significantly over the years,” he said.
In his time at Queen’s, he said that this manifested itself through “large numbers of bi-lingual signs”, and through a reluctance of Protestants to socialise at the union.
The News Letter has covered a number of stories where Protestants or unionists have raised grievances about activities on campus in recent years.
This has ranged from the Orange Order making complaints about GAA kits worn by UU students which bore Hunger Strikers’ names in 2013, to a failed attempt to ban remembrance poppies in Queen’s Students’ Union in 2014.
While it may not be the only factor influencing the figures, Mr Weir said this “chill factor” may be one of them, adding: “In terms of the strides that are taken to make the universities in Northern Ireland welcoming to those from a unionist background, there has clearly not been enough done at times.”
Sandra Overend MLA, UUP education spokeswoman said while the difference in Catholic and Protestant enrolment “may be surprising at first reading, they confirm a well-established trend”.
She said: “What is important is that the whole issue of inequality in educational achievement is addressed at an early age.
“Despite years of reports highlighting the issue, this has not been tackled by successive Sinn Fein education ministers.”
The Ulster University was asked to comment, but was unable to do so by time of going to press.
Queen’s sent a statement in which the university described itself as a”non-denominational university which promotes and provides a pluralistic environment for its students and staff”.
It added that the university’s own student population “is broadly in line with the available census data for 2011”.
It said: “Of those who declared a religious affiliation, 35.8 per cent of students at Queen’s identified themselves as Protestant, 50.6 per cent identified themselves as Catholic, with 13.6 per cent other/not declared.”
Across all ages, the split between those belonging to each of the Province’s two main religious communities (or who say they were brought up in one) stood at 45.1% Catholic, to 48.4% Protestant according to the last large-scale Census, taken in 2011.
However, the proprtion who were aged 18, 19, or 20 (which is the typical age at which most would enrol in university), stood at 48.5% Catholic, and 43.3% Protestant.
AS A PERCENTAGE OF THOSE ENTERING HIGHER EDUCATION:
2014/15 (the most recent available figures) –