Traditionalists in higher education have found the past decade very trying. The ancient, civilised academic world is under siege from a host of new barbarians. The pillars of this ancient world - chemistry, German, mathematics, etc - are being corroded by the introduction of new subjects - cultural studies, social work and media studies.
Could equine studies be the final straw?
The future of equine studies in the United Kingdom seems bright: an industry that provides full-time employment for nearly 100,000 people; a large and dedicated band of talented young people keen to enter higher education; and an increasing number of institutions that offer courses.
Equine studies has developed a noticeable presence. Slowly and surely, the number of courses and students has started to rise. The number of students enrolled on such degree courses rose from only 72 in 1994 to 158 in 1996. Figures from the Business and Technology Education Council indicate that in 1995 some 330 students were enrolled on its HNDs compared to 17 in 1988. A major route to such courses, the BTEC National Diploma, enrolled 626 students in 1995 compared to 55 in 1990.
Some 20 institutions offer higher education courses in equine studies: some are universities or other higher education institutions, such as Coventry University, which utilise the services of a smaller agricultural college; some are large, successful higher education agricultural colleges such as Writtle; but many are small agricultural colleges in the further education sector.
Anyone who has studied primary journals on horses knows that this is a serious academic area. Anatomy, biochemistry, physiology and nutrition are heavyweight academic areas with a research base centred on veterinary institutions. Add topics such as breeding, genetics, grassland and facilities management and you have a potent brew.
When I began the planning cycle (1991) for the first equine course delivered by Nene College, I found myself in the enviable position of having my large higher education institution, with a track record in undergraduate courses, situated about one mile from an agricultural college in the further education sector with excellent natural resources. The new course could call upon the different strengths of the two institutions and provide an excellent resource base.
This is not the case in many of the centres offering higher education, mostly HND, equine courses. They are relatively small, with a limited resource base. The number of key staff capable of delivering at higher education level is small; laboratory facilities are not normally up to higher education standard; library provision and access to information systems are very basic. Staff are mostly employed on further education contracts, with a very large number of weekly contact hours, and there is little time available for scholarship and research.
Can an HND student derive all the benefits of studying at that level when they are based in a small institution which does not have a strong higher education ethos? Maybe small institutions should concentrate on serving local industry via HNDs?
It is becoming obvious that there will be a drift towards a greater proportion of students seeking degrees rather than HNDs. We need better linkage between HNDs and degrees so that suitable students have a route for academic progression. For this you need a large resource base in a relatively large institution.
The early 1990s was a time of expansion in higher education: what better than a new subject for which there was a demand. Further education institutions forged a new life away from local authority control and they recognised the need for diversification and regional provision. Institutions may have considered this to be a profitable, money-making area without considering fully the extra costly resources required.
We need to set up a committee of heads of departments and start to support best practice, and seek to raise standards, maybe produce a common core curriculum. We need a strong sector with centres of excellence; this way the subject will gain credibility. Via an overarching body there are many things that could be achieved - sharing of staff expertise, joint teaching, more expert workshops, the production of joint distance learning material of high academic quality and increased networking.
We owe it to the students, we must give them the maximum opportunity. The academic reputation of this country has probably slipped of late. Here we have a chance to enhance our reputation and show that when we develop a new subject we can do it to the highest standards. Let us make a secure tomorrow for equine studies, not just a quick buck today.
Paul Phillips is senior lecturer in the school of environmental science, Nene College of Higher Education.