Rural Ireland faces a plethora of significant challenges caused by factors at home and abroad. Farming is simply losing its viability as a full time profession, particularly in the meat sector with Irish farmers, who are so reliant upon export markets, being hit severely by developments such as the flooding of the EU market with cheaper imports from places like South America, and the imminent end of EU export subsidies in 2013. Nearly two thirds of the IFA’s (Irish Farming Association) 130,000 members are now forced to combine farm work with other part time employment and in the last four years alone, the national ewe herd has fallen from 4½ to 2½ million, as farmers abandon loss-making lamb farming.
It is not just on an agricultural level however, that Ireland’s rural society is mired in difficulty. Regions such as the border counties suffer from a brain drain as young people seek jobs in the flourishing cities and towns, and social services are gradually eroded as populations shrink in relation to burgeoning urban centres. These developments are damaging rural areas on economic and social terms.
Programmes such as UCD’s MSc (and Graduate Diploma) in Rural Development are an educational response to such issues. A one-year full time course, it is designed for students from Ireland and overseas who wish to pursue a career in rural development with organisations such as local development companies, county councils, the ESRI and the Western Development Commission.
The programme involves coursework from September to May. The taught modules cover areas such as Economics and Sociology in Rural Development, Rural Enterprise & Marketing, Social Research, Communications and Rural Development Policy. If the required standard is met in exams, students go on to complete a minor research thesis in the lead up to the following September in order to acquire the MSc.
For Course Co-ordinator Anne Markey, the research thesis represents a crucial opportunity for students to pursue projects that are of benefit to their home region. ‘We try to assist them to do something practical so that they link up with the local development agencies on the ground,’ she says. The many overseas students, often state employees from developing African nations such as Ethiopia and Tanzania, also return home to carry out their research thesis.
The strong international element of UCD’s MSc in Rural Development applies not just to the nationality of the students, but also the course work. Many of the case studies that are examined are of foreign origin and as Markey points out, ‘the principles of rural development apply internationally.’
Irish case studies involve examining companies such as Ballyhoura Development Ltd – a development organisation in North Cork and Limerick: ‘they would be nearly the “laboratory rat” of rural development in Ireland.’ Students are also taken on field trips; in 2007 it was Carlow, where the class visited Teagasc, local farmers who were diversifying into new enterprises, and local development agencies.
The programme examines roughly three various approaches through which the farming community can improve their situation: improving farming efficiency; farmers (or their spouses) engaging in retraining in order to exploit additional income opportunities off the farm; or farmers developing new enterprises and specialisations with their existing resources. But as Anne Markey is at pains to point out, the programme is concerned not just with agriculture, but also ‘the broader rural community and how these communities can help themselves with economic and social developments, not just “what can the government do for us?” but “what can we do for ourselves?”‘
UCC also offer a postgraduate programme in rural development: the two-year full time MSc in Co-Operative Organisation, Food Marketing and Rural Development (year one of which leads to the award of a Postgraduate Diploma). The programme is focused on fostering innovative development in the rural economy, with particular emphasis on co-operatives, social enterprises and food business in Ireland and overseas. Co-operatives play a major role in the rural economy in particular, and in 2006 there were 1,040 registered in Ireland, comprising over 270,000 members, 38,000 employees and generating €3.8 billion in sales revenue. Worldwide, co-operatives account for over eight million members.
Modules in the Postgraduate Diploma include Co-Operative Organisation, Food Marketing, Rural Development and a Practical Training Placement. During this placement, students carry out a project while working with a co-operative, food firm or development agency in Ireland or abroad. Previous placements have been obtained by students in the UK, Denmark, the US, Italy, Germany and Russia.
The year also includes examination of case studies, field trips and workshops conducted by visiting experts.
An excellent opportunity is available to some graduates of the Postgraduate Diploma in Co-Operative Organisation, Food Marketing and Rural Development to undertake a fully funded work placement in a developing country such as Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and the Philippines. These placements often form the basis for the research dissertation that all students are required to complete in second year in order to attain the MSc. Previous research topics that were inspired by working abroad have included food security, credit and micro-finance, and soil and water conservation.
Queen’s University in Belfast provide a third, part time option for those seeking a postgraduate education in rural development. After two years of this programme students are awarded a Graduate Diploma, with a successful third year culminating in a Master of Science in Rural Development.
Rural development is a major challenge in terms of poverty, depopulation, etc. to societies all over the globe. And as a multidisciplinary subject of postgraduate study, it is a pathway to many rewarding careers in the public and private sectors, in Ireland and abroad.