Call for national action to improve agricultural higher education

Posted on May 15, 2012


‘I don’t want to work with struggling farmers.’ That comment came from a Year 12 student confronted with the choice of a career in agriculture.

In the past decade, the number of university campuses with agricultural courses in Australia has been slashed by more than half – from 23 to nine. 

There are now about 300 students doing agricultural degrees to meet the nation’s annual workforce demand for more than 4,000 positions.

That’s the grim news La Trobe University agricultural experts delivered to  a Senate Committee in Melbourne today which is examining Australia’s ailing agricultural education system.

While it won’t surprise many on the land, the submission is an eye-opener for people in cities.
‘It’s an issue of great importance for all Australians,’ says Head of Agricultural Sciences, Professor Terry Spithill. ‘We need to feed a growing population in Australia and worldwide, and maintain a thriving agricultural export industry to create wealth beyond the mining boom.’

La Trobe University’s Department of Agricultural Sciences was invited to make a submission to the Senate committee. The submission recommends that a high-powered taskforce be established by government and private stakeholders to promote agriculture careers in urban and regional areas.

‘Most of our year 10-12 students live in cities and have very limited experience of rural life,’ says Professor Spithill. ‘The agricultural sector has failed to promote itself. It needs to get the message out about the many excellent job opportunities that exist, so that students can make informed career choices.’

A key problem for Australia, he says, is the increasing shortage of trained agronomists for broad-acre cropping and for horticulture.

Excellent job prospects

Professor Spithill: more options for university students

For example, there were recently more than 30 vacancies for crop agronomists for cropping and horticulture in north-west Victoria, yet not one person applied, despite rising salaries and employment conditions for such appointments.

Starting salaries for such jobs, says Professor Spithill, range from $40,000 to $55,000 plus superannuation, and these salaries accelerate with experience.

Public perceptions of the agricultural industry – images of hardship and bank foreclosures on farms, climate impacts and market collapses for key commodities – convey the misleading picture of a struggling, unattractive sector in the minds of students and parents, says the submission. In fact, job prospects in the sector are tremendous, says Professor Spithill.

The submission also calls for an industry-established national ‘Agriculture Tertiary Education Council’ (ATEC) to help educate professionals and support education and career initiatives in plant, animal and soil sciences, as well as agricultural biotechnology and agribusiness.

Scholarship support

Professor Spithill says governments, industry and the proposed ATEC will need to collaborate and offer many more agricultural career scholarships and cadetships, HECS support to undergraduate students as well as targeted PhD scholarships.

‘These will be more effective if they are part of a larger initiative to promote agricultural education to students and parents.’

The submission proposes a series of ‘Rising Star Future Fellowships’ and an annual award to celebrate agricultural science ‘Heroes’, maybe along the lines of the popular science Eureka Awards.

The La Trobe submission also highlights the tight funding to Australian universities over the past two decades which has put the squeeze on Agriculture Departments.

‘Good agricultural education needs resources,’ says Professor Spithill. ‘Subjects are expensive to deliver, requiring farm visits, field trips and laboratory classes.  At La Trobe, for example, we also run an on-campus farm reserve.’

New $288m AgriBio Centre

The new Agribio Research Centre

La Trobe also has made a substantial investment in Victoria’s new $288 million state-of-the-art AgriBio Research Centre on its Melbourne campus at Bundoora.

The Centre co-locates a critical mass of 350 scientists from the Department of Primary Industries with La Trobe staff to support research in Australian crop and animal production and carry out work on national agribio-security.

Apart from public perceptions of the agricultural industry and the funding issues, Professor Spithill says declining enrolments can also be partly attributed to the unified national higher education system.

‘This has created more options for students choosing to take a tertiary degree, suggesting we need to raise the profile of Agriculture degrees in a crowded marketplace.’

The submission to the Senate Inquiry into Higher Education and Skills Training to Support Future Demand in Agriculture and Agribusiness in Australia was prepared by Professor Spithill, Associate Professor Peter Sale, Professor Caixian Tang, and Associate Professor John Webb.

La Trobe University has a range of initiatives to boost graduate numbers for the agricultural industry. They include full-time first year studies in Agricultural Science at the Albury-Wodonga campus, pathways into degrees for TAFE students, Agriculture majors within other science degrees, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Agricultural Science for science graduates interested in a career in the sector.