Higher Education: These students aren't just horsing around

Spurred on by demand, agricultural colleges are now welcoming hundreds of school-leavers on to degrees in equine studies. By Lucy Hodges
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The Independent Online
If your daughter wants to study horses for her degree course, don't laugh. Equine studies is one of the fastest-growing and most popular degrees in the country, attracting girls with brains as well as those who look good in thigh-hugging jodhpurs, and giving agricultural colleges a welcome boost in student numbers.

Five years ago Writtle College, set in flat Essex countryside outside Chelmsford, had almost no horse studies. Today it has 289 students studying for a BSc honours degree, an HND or other BTEC diplomas out of a total student population of more than 1,500, and the School of Equine Studies is one of its largest. The college has stabling for 30 horses, a stud unit, an indoor and outdoor school and a cross-country course. Under the new funding mechanism, more students means more money for colleges, so higher education institutions that have diversified into new areas are receiving a new lease of life.

"The demand for agricultural education has fallen," says Liz Warr, the Oxford-educated dean of applied science and engineering at Writtle. "We either get smaller or we change to meet demand."

Hartpury, an agricultural college in Gloucestershire, has witnessed the same phenomenon. Today 350 out of a total of 950 students are following equine studies. "We have exploded on to the market," says Jeremy Michaels, head of Hartpury's School of Equine Studies.

This year, a total of 18 colleges are offering degrees in equine studies, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. There were 878 applicants for degrees and HNDs last autumn, of whom 282 were accepted.

When Writtle developed its degree in equine studies, it saw a gap in the market, a chance for expansion and buoyant student demand. The UK horse industry has grown dramatically. Today it is the third major employer in what is called the land-based sector, after agriculture and horticulture, contributing some pounds 30m to the economy, and horse riding is a burgeoning new "leisure" activity. At last count, there were more than 600,000 horses in the country, all of which have to be fed, shod, housed and groomed.

"There are commercial opportunities out there," says Liz Warr. Her graduates will not simply leave to teach riding but will have an array of opportunities from the design and building of stables, through clothing, saddlery, and leatherwork, to marketing, semen export and stud management.

But is a degree in equine studies worth having? Is it a serious academic course? Those who teach it insist it is. First, their students are among the best brains in agricultural colleges, reflecting the heavy demand for places. Writtle receives 10 applications for each degree and HND place. Jane Hurford-Dawson, head of equine studies at Writtle, expects her degree students to have 16 points at A-level, the equivalent of two Cs and a B.

The curriculum has been designed with academic rigour in mind, she says. Horse students at Writtle are taught riding skills in their first two years but also receive heavy doses of anatomy, physiology and microbiology. The final year of the degree is given over entirely to such topics as breeding theory, policy studies and a choice of science or management modules. All courses are validated and externally examined, says Ms Hurford- Dawson, who has a Master's degree in educational technology.

At Warwickshire, the first college to establish a degree in equine studies, in 1990 (in conjunction with Coventry University), students do no riding at all for the degree. Michael Wells, head of higher education at the 820-student college in the village of Moreton Morrell, says: "We're trying to make sure our degree is comparable with any other degree." His college expects 14 points at A-level from entrants, the equivalent of a C and two Ds. Four of his former students went into postgraduate work last year and one has been accepted on to the graduate training programme for chartered accountancy this year.

Equine studies is overwhelmingly taken by young women. Likewise, the academics in the new subject are overwhelmingly female.

Are they a bunch of Hooray Henriettas? Not according to Jane Hurford- Dawson. Students on further education courses come from varied backgrounds. There's a smattering of service families and a proportion educated at fee-paying schools on the degree course.

The big criticism of the new courses from within the industry is that there will not be enough jobs for them. The equine academics acknowledge the argument but say many of their graduates will be going into new kinds of jobs - equine insurance, management and equine-related accountancy - and some will simply go into the general graduate employment market.