8 March 2002

WYE LOOKS TO A NEW TYPE OF FUTURE

After a period of

upheaval, Wye College

in Kent is building up

undergraduate numbers

again and looking to a

different type of future,

as new head

Jeff Waage explained

to David Cousins

THERES a tendency to think that anything long established and highly spoken of is somehow immune to change. Wye College, which has been teaching University of London degrees in rural Kent for a century and has sent generations of graduates out into the farming world, sounds like a definite case in point.

And yet its not. For in 2000 it merged with Imperial College, one of the top three universities in the country. And a year later a new head arrived in the form of American-born Jeff Waage. So change has come thick and fast.

In education terms, Imperial is much bigger than Wye, with 10,000 students compared to Wyes 500. Imperials main strengths are in science, engineering and medicine, so there were clear benefits for Wye of being more closely allied to its bigger brother.

However the initial plan to move two-thirds of Wyes departments into the Huxley school of environment, earth sciences and engineering and the remaining third into Imperials biology department looked complicated and threatened a loss of identity for Wye.

That danger was headed off when it was announced that Wye would become the department of agricultural sciences within Imperials faculty of life sciences. "Effectively, it brought Wye back together, fitting us into the faculty of life sciences," says Prof Waage. "It also means that we now have access to Imperials facilities and equipment and can call on its research and teaching facilities."

Teaching expertise

Prof Waage clearly also has his eye on Imperials medical research and teaching expertise. Many universities have agricultural and medical faculties side by side, he points out, yet cross-over in terms of teaching or research has traditionally been all but non-existent. That will all change in the next few years, he believes.

"If you look at the future of farming, you can see the relationship between health and agriculture becoming closer," he says. "We have already seen research into the risks of pesticides to humans.

"The first generation of biotech crops have been disappointing – they didnt actually seem to benefit the consumer or the farmer. But the next generation will be all about improving food quality and breeding crops that are more nutritious and healthy.

"Further ahead are visionary areas like using crops to produce particular vitamins or drugs like insulin."

Research may have a fresh new direction, but what about undergraduate teaching? "Our undergraduate numbers have dropped substantially over the last two years," he says. "This was partly because we became rather invisible during our merger and potential students found it very difficult to find information on courses. But we also decided to concentrate on top-flight students and increased our A-level entry requirements.

"We are very committed to undergraduate teaching at Wye and plan to increase our numbers back up to where they were before."

Courses are changing, too. Agricultural science and agricultural business management – the areas for which Wye has always been renowned – will remain at the core of the syllabus.

But as farmers increasingly find themselves environmental managers as much as producers of crops and livestock, the emphasis on that side of things will inevitably increase. The continuing interest in equine science and equine business management is a reflection of this.

With the upheavals at Imperial College at Wye now behind him, Prof Waage is optimistic about the future. "Agriculture itself may be changing fast, but Wyes teaching and research programmes are changing with it."

FARM IS STILL A KEY ASSET

WHILE other colleges have sold off their farms or put them out to contract, Wye has steadfastly refused to go down that route. Its farm is not just a valuable educational and research asset, but also performs financially better than the average for farms in the south-east, says David Leaver, who as well as being professor of agriculture at Wye also oversees the activities of the farm.

The 320ha (790 acre) owner-occupied unit, which incorporates heavy clay, medium loams and thin soils over chalk, grows 200ha (500acres) of cereals, oilseed rape and beans. Theres also 25ha (60 acres) of maize and 95ha (235 acres) of grass that support a 140-cow dairy herd and followers, and 140 pedigree Suffolk sheep. Finally, theres a 250-sow rearing and fattening unit.

Ties are close

All work on the arable and dairy units is done by the manager and three staff, apart from silage making and slurry spreading. Theres also a small organic arable unit.

Ties between the farming and teaching sides at the college are close. Farm manager Andrew Ferguson also lectures in crop production and students use the farm for case studies and project work, while those on business management courses have access to the farms management accounts.

A good deal of research work also takes place, both on the animal and crop side and increasingly into environmental matters.