Closer attention started to be paid, especially by the unionist parties, once it became clear that the brain drain was not religiously balanced. In an article in The Irish Times on 6 February 2007, Bob Osborne, Director of the social and policy research institute at the University of Ulster, pointed out that:
" ... the proportion of Protestants who leave for study is twice as high as for Catholics. This factor, together with the younger age profile of the Catholic community, helps explain why the two Northern Ireland universities are predominantly Catholic. About 55 per cent of students at Queens and 60 per cent at the University of Ulster are Catholic. [...]
Major employers such as the Northern Ireland civil service show Catholics forming the majority among younger age groups while Protestants have a much higher representation among the 50-plus age group. This trend is bound to produce major change over time.
So, the exodus of some of the best and the brightest from the Protestant community is shifting the balance in the graduate labour market and ultimately to the jobs profiles of the two communities. [...]
Whether unionist politicians will admit it or not this exodus from the protestant middle class looks like a vote of no confidence in Northern Ireland.
Allied to anecdotal evidence of Protestants reaching retirement and moving to Britain where their graduate children (and grandchildren) now live add further to the sense of desertion. A community which exports such a substantial proportion of its most able students over such a long time risks losing the dynamism and energy for renewal in political leadership and civic life."
The issue was taken up by the UUP in 2005, though, of course, they were a little coy about their real interest, which Bob Osborne referred to in his last paragraph.
So what are the facts?
The latest statistics available from the Department of Employment and Learning relate to 2001-2002, but are probably representative. They show the total numbers of Northern Irish school leavers who entered institutions of higher education in NI and GB by religion. Of the students who study in Northern Ireland, fully 58% are Catholic, and only 37% are Protestant. The students who go to Britain to study are, on the other hand 53% Protestant, and only 34% Catholic. If you assume that at least half of those who declared no religion were 'cultural Protestants', the overall Protestant proportion of the student emigrés reaches almost 59%.
Does it matter where people study?
Again, the Department of Employment and Learning comes to the rescue! In their Statistical Bulletin Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education: Northern Ireland, 2004/05 of 11 August 2006, they explain the significance:
So, in a nutshell, if you leave to go to university in Britain, you are more likely to stay there. The significance is clear: Catholics stay in Northern Ireland to study, and stay there after graduating. Protestants who go to England or Scotland are likely to stay there after graduating.
Of the 5,455 NI domiciled undergraduates who attained qualifications through full-time study at Higher Education institutions in NI and had data returned, 91% of those whose location of employment was known remained in NI, 5% went to GB and 3% went to RoI.
But, of the 1,995 NI domiciled undergraduates who attained qualifications through full-time study at Higher Education institutions in GB and had data returned, 36% of those whose location of employment was known returned to NI, 56% remained in GB and 4% went to RoI.
The effect is to increase the proportion of the university-goers in Northern Ireland that is Catholic from 51.5% before they go to university, to 54.8% four years later, after graduation.
The proportion that is Protestant, as a result of the imbalanced brain drain, drops from 41.6% at school-leaving, to 39.4% four years later!