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19 August, 2020

Ag education reforms "just more smoke and mirrors"

Ag Education heavyweights have lashed out at the perverse message sent to Australia’s universities when the Federal Government announced a 62 per cent price cut to tertiary agriculture courses from 2021.

By Edwina Watson RURAL LEADER JOURNALIST

UNE Agriculture students in the field

University of Queensland (UQ) Dean of Agriculture, Neal Menzies, said while student fees in high priority courses would drop, universities would actually receive a lower rate of funding when they were expected to cater to expanding enrolments.

“One objective of the Federal Government’s June announcement was to increase the number of graduates in areas of expected employment growth,” Mr Menzies said.

“That includes agriculture, as well as teaching, nursing, STEM and IT.”

However Mr Menzies said the proposed reduction in student contributions to a Commonwealth Supported Place (CSP) at any of Australia’s tertiary institutions would not be made up by an increase in contributions by the government.

“From 2021 we will receive 10 per cent less funding per agriculture student,” Mr Menzies said.

In June, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the government would provide an additional 39,000 university places to domestic students by 2023, and an additional 100,000 places by 2030.

Mr Tehan said the government would incentivize young people to make more job-relevant study choices as part of its Covid-19 economic recovery phase.

“Students who study agriculture or maths will pay 62 per cent less for their degree,” Mr Tehan said. 

“Students in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages will pay 46 per cent less for their degree, and students in STEM will pay 20 per cent less.”

The Government’s initiative comes on the back of Dr Denis Napthine’s 2019 National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy, which found those living in country Australia were 40 per cent less likely to gain a tertiary education, compared to their city cousins.

However Mr Menzies said UQ did not anticipate that a price slash to agriculture courses would herd more students towards the subject.

“Unfortunately we are looking at a very inelastic market,” Mr Menzies said.

“Previous government attempts to increase STEM enrolments by altering the cost of degrees produced no effect, and we expect the same this time around.”

Charles Sturt University Emeritus Professor of Agriculture, Jim Pratley, said the jury was still out at his Bathurst, New South Wales campus.

“We find the cost of a degree is not typically influential in future students’ choices,” Mr Pratley said.

“The Australian tertiary system for domestic students means a degree effectively becomes a bank card. Individuals can work and study within their chosen industry now, and repay their student loans later.”

Mr Pratley said universities were already predicted to lose billions of dollars in international fee revenue amid the Covid-19 fallout.

“A further financial impost like the new funding scheme would severely affect the capacity of universities to maintain high quality teaching programs and undertake internationally competitive research,” Mr Pratley said.

“That is something our institutions will just have to wear.”

Conversely, University of New England (UNE) Lecturer, Dr Emma Doyle, said for UNE’s School of Environmental and Rural Science to deliver the same level of education including practical lessons and industry tours, it would have to somehow attract a greater student intake to increase its funding.

Dr Doyle said providing students with a challenging, informative and enthusing experience in agriculture at high school would be the winning formula.

“The perception of agriculture in schools has to change,” Dr Doyle said.

“Sadly, secondary school teachers still view it as a sector for less academic students and do not realise the diversity of career opportunities available.”

Exciting young minds... UNE Agriculture introduces its university program to secondary students at New England Girls' School, Armidale

Mr Pratley agreed, adding the starting salary for agriculture graduates was in the top 10 per cent of all graduate salaries. 

“While the most common association with agriculture is this idea of the conventional ‘farmer’, farmers only make up 10 to 14 per cent of the agricultural workforce,” Mr Pratley said. 

“We also need scientists, tech experts, business people and finance gurus.” 

Mr Pratley contended that, with the education reforms, the government had finally identified there were plenty of jobs to be had within the industry. 

“The graduate employment prospects in agriculture are buoyant, with up to 2000 jobs in excess of university graduate outputs,” Mr Pratley said. 

“There are four to five positions available to every graduate that we are currently unable to fill.” 

UNE alumni, Jane Kirkwood, 23, of Clermont, agreed there was an ongoing need for young educated professionals in Australian agriculture. 

Ms Kirkwood returned to her family’s beef cattle and cropping enterprise, Disney, 150 kilometres north of Clermont this year after graduating with a Bachelor of Agriculture and completing stints with Elders in Emerald and a horticultural agronomy group in Townsville. 

“The connections you make at university are the most beneficial,” Ms Kirkwood said. 

“The agriculture course gave you a basic working knowledge of everything, which is what any university should do.” 

Jane Kirkwood, 23, of Clermont, with Robb College UNE Master, Jamie Moore

Ms Kirkwood said she was drawn to the program in Armidale because she wanted to bridge the knowledge gap between animal nutrition and agronomy. 

“At Disney, our family fattens beef cattle on petrol wheat,” Ms Kirkwood said. 

“There are those who go away to study animal nutrition, and there are those that go away to study agronomy. 

“I wanted to bring the two disciplines together, to assist my family to really bring the best out of their enterprise. 

“People should know what their stock need, and also what their country can grow. At Disney we’re essentially farming for beef production,” Ms Kirkwood said. 

Ms Kirkwood appreciated the government’s reforms recognised agriculture as an essential service, but said the price signaling fee reduction was a Catch-22. 

“It is so important we recruit the best, most committed and most passionate industry people,” Ms Kirkwood said. 

“Young people should not only be encouraged to enter or upskill within the agriculture sector, they should also be encouraged to go bush for a year or two first. 

“Our brightest minds need to be educated about the bush.” 

It remains to be seen if the shortfall in government funding will impact the quality of Australian agriculture education and research.         


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