Available data shows 9,370 third-level students in northwest Ireland, with approximately 3,300 graduates a year in the region. The Ireland Northwest Trade & Investment mission may have included figures for Ulster University Coleraine, which is outside the geography covered by the partnership. Even so, the claim is a large overestimation.

40,000 third-level students?

On 12 November 2019, Derry City and Strabane Council published a promotional video, in which it claimed that “Ireland Northwest” contained “40,000 third level students” with “7,000 graduates annually ready for employment”.

The claim of 40,000 third-level students is also made on the mission’s website:

The video was produced for a project called Ireland Northwest. A dedicated website provides a description: “The Ireland Northwest Trade & Investment Mission is a collaboration between Donegal County Council and Derry City & Strabane District Council.”

In the video, there is an image of a map, overlaid with the constituent boundaries of the two council areas. This infers the geographical area that is represented by the “key facts” that Ireland Northwest presents.

What is third-level education?

In Northern Ireland, NI Direct defines third-level education as “higher education” that takes place “after you leave school” and at universities and Further Education colleges. It notes that this may include Bachelor’s degrees, postgraduate qualifications, foundation degrees, Higher National Certificates (HNC), Higher National Diplomas (HND), and “certificates and other academic awards granted by a university or higher education college”.

In the Republic of Ireland, Citizens Information defines the third-level education sector as consisting of “universities, institutes of technology, and colleges of education – collectively known as higher education institutions or HEIs”. Third-level qualifications are Levels 6-10 in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ).

Using these definitions, the providers of third-level education in northwest Ireland (i.e the constituencies covered by Ireland Northwest) are:

  1. Ulster University (UU), Magee Campus
  2. North West Regional College (NWRC), which has campuses in Derry/Londonderry, Limavady, and Strabane
  3. Letterkenny Institute of Technology

Are there 40,000 third-level students enrolled in these colleges?

In short, no. There are 9,370 third-level students enrolled in these colleges. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Ulster University has a campus at Magee in Derry/Londonderry. This is a university offering third-level education only. In a reply to a Freedom of Information request from the Derry News, the university planning office confirmed that in the academic year 2018/19, there were 4,313 students studying at the Magee campus: 3,429 were full-time and 884 were part-time. If most degrees take three years to achieve, and following the same pattern observed at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, we estimate that there would be 1,500 graduates from the Magee campus each year.
  • North West Regional College’s data compliance officer provided us with a current estimate of 1,057 students studying in third level/higher education. Of these, 539 are full-time and 518 are part-time. It noted that this may not represent the final figure as further enrolments may be received and processed throughout the year. In 2017-18, third-level students comprised 10% of NWRC’s overall student enrolments. NWRC had 586 students graduate from higher education in 2018-19.
  • Letterkenny Institute of Technology’s admissions office confirmed that they have just over 4,000 students in total, and that all of these students are completing higher education qualifications, Levels 6-10. They also advised that they had 1,200 graduates in 2018.

Adding the totals for the three colleges, we can say that there are 9,370 third-level students in the northwest region of the island of Ireland, with approximately 3,300 graduates a year. This total includes both part-time and full-time students.

An investment brochure published by Ireland Northwest reveals that it may have included data from Ulster University, Coleraine campus, for its third-level student figure. UU Coleraine is located in the neighbouring constituency of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. According to a previous Freedom of Information request, for academic year 2017-18, UU Coleraine had 3,576 students: 3,150 undergraduate and 426 postgraduate.

This would increase our estimate from 9,370 to 12,946 third-level students.

We contacted Derry City and Strabane District Council to ask how they arrived at their figure of 40,000 third-level students. They did not elaborate and asked that we submit a Freedom of Information request instead, which we have done. We will update this article when we receive a reply.

FactCheckNI is unsure where the discrepancy in numbers has come from. There is a possibility that Derry City and Strabane District Council may have included students from NWRC studying at Level 3 and above, which is classified as “further education”. This includes AS and A levels, NVQs and higher apprenticeships, and is a separate classification from third-level education. However NWRC also provided us with an estimate of 7,190 students studying in further and higher education, so even including these students would add 6,133, or 15,503 students overall.


Derry City and Strabane District Council published a promotional video on 12 November 2019, with the aim of attracting investment into the Ireland Northwest region. The video claimed that “Ireland Northwest” had 40,000 students in third-level education, with 7,000 graduates ready for employment annually.

We were able to obtain student numbers and graduation numbers for the three colleges in the region. We found that there were 9,370 third-level students in northwest Ireland, and that approximately 3,300 people graduate with a third-level qualification in the region per year.

Derry City and Strabane District Council’s claim is inaccurate.

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