Photo by Niall Hurson

Resting on the edge of South Dublin far removed from the nearest milking parlour or combine, UCD would seem to have no business operating one of the best Agricultural Science institutions in the world, writes Donnacha Colgan.

In 2016, Agricultural Sciences at University College Dublin (UCD) held position 41 in the U.S. News and World Report. Since then, the school of Agriculture has soared through the ranks reaching position 19 in 2019. Dean of Agricultural Science Professor Alexander Evans said, “this ranking is an achievement we are very proud of, it reflects the hard work and commitment by our faculty, staff and students.” 

On the growing popularity of agricultural science courses in more rural academic institutions Professor Evans stressed the benefits of keeping the course here in Dublin city. “There’s no experience like the UCD experience. Having agricultural science here on campus gives our students the opportunity to meet people from other faculties that they wouldn’t have otherwise met if they were in bespoke settings.” Being a city university seemingly doesn’t affect UCDs ability to teach agriculture either. “Lyons Farm is a great asset that others in Ireland and around the world don’t have. University farms are dying out and UCD has been great in protecting that asset.”

The balance between a practical and theoretical approach has helped UCD soar through the ranks as they have demonstrated outstanding levels of employment for their student’s post-graduation. Agricultural science graduates have forged careers in a diverse range of professions from the agri-food sector, public policy, to healthcare. Figures from the class of 2017 saw 73.5% enter employment and 23.4% engage in further study, with an unemployment rate of just 2.1%. Professor Evans owes this to the value companies put on the range of specialist and transferable skills developed in the agricultural science programme. The Dean of Agriculture stated “some institutions are giving an education where you learn a bunch of recipes and solutions that are good when you graduate but will be no good in a few years’ time as problems shift. UCD aim to give people tools so that they can solve problems that don’t even exist yet.” It is this approach that has resulted in UCD graduates holding some of the leading positions in Irish agriculture today.

A large proportion of these tools seem to have a strong base in science which the school distils in their students during the first two years in college. Professor Evans believes that developing a strong foundation in the basic sciences in the beginning is key. “Students don’t like the basic sciences for the first few years, but I can tell you the more years you are out of college, the more you will come to appreciate it. If you talk to someone who graduated 10 years ago, they will always say the basic sciences are what keeps them up to date.”

Aside from the employability of its graduates, UCD also outperforms many other Agricultural Science institutions in the three most important factors in the US News rankings, namely global research reputation, regional research reputation, and publications. Professor Evans owes the quality of this work to the quality of student coming into UCD agricultural science over the past decade. “The points for agriculture have climbed steadily over the past 10 years meaning we have been taking in increasingly better students. We say in UCD about hiring the best people and attracting the best students, and with the best human resources comes the best results. Our work is at a really high quality.” UCD are ranked top three for citations of their papers. This is owed to approaching local problems with a global mindset. When we study the Wicklow sheep farmer, we don’t just study him in the context of Wicklow, we study him in the world context of climate change, production, and genetics.

Despite the monumental achievement of UCD breaking into the top 20 ranked Agricultural Science institutions in the world, Professor Evans is keen to highlight the school’s ability to help students grow outside of the classroom. “Only half of what you learn in your degree you learn in the classroom. You learn the other half in many other places and having a comprehensive university really helps with that.”

Professor Evans concluded that “there’s no other institution of agricultural science that’s like us in Ireland. There’s a lot of institutions doing different parts of what we do, but there’s nobody doing it in our holistic way.”