Social Media Assessment: Banbridge Across the Nation! (An explanation as to why everyone here seems to be Irish)

For those of you who don’t know, I grew up in a small (well, relatively large for Irish standards) town in Northern Ireland called Banbridge, which is about twenty minutes’ drive from Belfast. It’s one of those typical Irish towns where everyone seems to know everyone else’s life story and it’s impossible to avoid becoming engaged in a massive rambling conversation about how the neighbours are coping every time you leave the house.

               It’s one of those small communities which people just seem to be born and die in and where everybody seems to live about ten minutes down the road from their entire extended family.

               However, last year almost half of those from this small town (about a third of all those who studied A-levels) who went to university went to university abroad (although, I suppose your definition of “abroad” would depend on whether or not you believe Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom) with the majority of students going to England and Scotland.

               This pretty much follows the trend for all of Northern Ireland, where more people than ever before are leaving to study and work abroad. All this in spite of living in what experts are calling one of the most politically and economically stable periods in Northern Ireland’s history.

               It’s something that’s come up time and time again in meetings of the Northern Ireland Assembly (our version of the Scottish Parliament) and of the Ministry of Education and Training. It’s been the subject of quite a few studies – and many reasons have been put forward as to why people are leaving.

               One is that people are put off studying here by the high level of graduate unemployment (everyone knows that one guy who got a first and is still living at home, stacking shelves in Tesco’s for a living). Another is that studying in Northern Ireland is just too expensive (Tuition fees are capped at the same as England – with most people paying the maximum £3,000 per year).

               The other reason which is often stated is that the institutions in NI (the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast) simply don’t offer enough places to cater for all those who seek to attend university there.

               All of these studies raise very good and potentially valid points… but they seem to have been conducted without the input of either prospective students looking to university, or those who went abroad to study.

               As such, I decided to conduct a little survey of my own – asking people from my year at school what brought them to the UK to study as opposed to staying in Northern Ireland. I also E-mailed my former school and the examination board for NI, CCEA. Banbridge Academy never got back to me, and CCEA simply directed me to a page on their website, which while giving some very statistics in relation to those who studied in NI and applied for university there, wasn’t really a personal enough statement to use as a source in an article.

               Quite a few of the people I asked had actually applied to Northern Irish universities (mostly for Queen’s, the larger and more well-known of the two universities) but for whatever reason did not attain a place.

Northern Irish universities are notoriously pernickety as to who they let through their doors. Those who didn’t get offered places where often left having to decide whether or not to go to University in other parts of the UK or Ireland or just not to go that year.

               Even once one’s been offered a place one’s not necessarily to get into university in Northern Ireland that year. Queen’s University asks for higher grades on average than other universities offering the same subjects. For example, it takes 3 grade B’s at A level to study English and Film in Belfast – it takes 220 UCAS points to study it at Edinburgh Napier.

               If you’re wondering why I gave the Queens’ requirement in grades as opposed to points it’s because Queen’s doesn’t actually work on the UCAS points system. It also doesn’t recognise AS’s under normal circumstances.

               Northern Irish universities employ these measures (as well as executing their right to charge the maximum for all courses) in an attempt to thin out the sheer volume of applications they receive.

               However a much larger number of the people I asked told me that they didn’t even apply for further education in Northern Ireland – having intended to go to either the UK or Ireland (or for one individual, Brisbane, Australia) from the very beginning.

               The people I asked cited many reasons for why they had chosen to go away. Some cited a larger number of opportunities in the UK in regards to course choices (Queen’s for example doesn’t offer journalism. It’s only offered in one place in Northern Ireland as a degree course – a town not much larger than Banbridge but which warrants having a university campus simply  virtue of being so far away from everywhere else) and in terms of the variety of clubs and societies on offer.

               Many people also stated a desire to exert a greater degree of independence from their families than they thought would be available to them at home – mostly because most places in Northern Ireland are no more than two hours’ drive away from each other.

               They also wanted to attain a degree of independence from their friends. Most saw going away as a chance to go and make an entirely new group of friends and as a chance to expand their horizons not just in terms of their career but also in terms of their social life, being able to meet a much larger group of people than would have been possible for them at home (in school we had a nickname for Queen’s – the Academy 2.0).

               However when I asked far more people just said that they wanted to go away for the sake of getting out of Northern Ireland. “Ulster” (as it’s commonly known by one side of the community” is not exactly the most exciting place to be if you’re a young person. Most night-clubs only open three nights a week (usually Thursday, Friday and Saturday) and there actually laws in place preventing shops opening normal hours on Sundays.

               The political climate in Northern Ireland is also a quite a turnoff for many students. In 1972 the British government prorogued the Parliament of Northern Ireland having thought that the native population were incapable of governing themselves. Thirteen years ago devolution was restored and since then I think it’s safe to say we’re worse than incapable… A large number of those who run for office in Northern Ireland today are also those who ran thirty years ago… Just older. And grumpier.

               Northern Ireland is still a rather socially conservative place – just Google Iris Robinson, see the kind of people we elect – where those who don’t fit into the exact social norm are often pushed to the fringe of society (one boy who was in my government and politics class, when asked how living in London compared to living in NI answered that it was like “living in a wheelchair for eighteen years and then finding out I could suddenly walk.”). The largest club in my school, like in most schools in Northern Ireland, was the Christian Union. Every week hundreds of members of the student body would turn up to hear someone exonerating an ex-gay ministry or take in an anti-abortion presentation which more often than not would contain language and images which I’m sure one couldn’t show on TV before midnight in most parts of the world.

               The final question I asked my peers was whether or not they would consider returning to NI in the future. Most people said they wouldn’t rule it out, but only if they could guarantee getting a job in their preferred field. This would seem in line with the official statistics on the Ministry of Training and Education’s website – which states that 2/3 of all those who leave NI to study will never return permanently.

               It seems as if most people who came to the UK from NI came by choice, like myself. In the course of surveying and interviewing my former schoolmates I’ve heard a dizzying multitude of answers as to why they chose to come away, citing expenses, lack of choices available in Northern Ireland, and the common teenage desire to acquire a greater degree of independence. However, the most common reason, and one which I was told over and over again, was that they simply didn’t want to stay in NI. It’s a very small place – a very insular place – which most people generally believed didn’t have the facilities or oppurtunities to allow them to get all they wanted out of their university experience. To stay, according to several people I asked, just seemed like a wasted oppurtunity.

              I certainly know that this, before all of the other reasons, is why I chose to come away.

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