The cap on the number of local students who can attend Northern Ireland's two universities must be lifted to boost economic growth, the vice-chancellor of Ulster University has said.
Prof Paddy Nixon has said the success of the Belfast Region City Deal is underpinned by having enough skilled graduates.
Six councils have joined forces in a push to get the £1bn UK City Deal.
The deal is aimed at accelerating economic growth.
The councils have joined forces with further and higher education colleges and the civil service as part of the UK City Deal bid.
The Department for the Economy (DfE) controls the number of undergraduate places available at Queen's University and Ulster University for students from Northern Ireland and those from outside the UK.
DfE set maximum aggregate student numbers cap at both universities based on financial calculations.
Asked on the BBC's Inside Business programme if the cap should be lifted, Prof Nixon said: "Absolutely".
"We are losing over 5,000 A-Level students every year to Great Britain, because there aren't the places here to educate them," he said.
He added: "If we go down this route (of a City Deal), it then implies we have to do some other things which are really fundamental - about how we invest in and fund our higher education places and further education places to support it.
"Without that, these sorts of investments are a little bit like 'build it and they will come'.
"We need the people to populate them and they have to be done through the universities and the FE (further education) colleges."
Inside Business is broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster on Sundays at 13:30 BST and on Mondays at 18:30.