Featured: State of play in education

By: Anna Game-Lopata

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Enrolments in agriculture courses spiked 15 per cent in 2013, but will the turnaround be enough to help stem skills shortages and the research crisis? Anna Game-Lopata investigates.

Featured: State of play in education
AGCO Graduate Employee Nicholas Atkinson

When it came to degree preferences, university graduate Nicholas Atkinson didn’t hesitate in selecting agriculture.

As a child, he always enjoyed working on the family farm in Finley NSW, and this love continued through school. At La Trobe University in Melbourne, Atkinson took a double degree combining Agricultural Science with a Bachelor of Business.

Having recently completed an internship with farm equipment giant AGCO Australia’s Graduate Development program, Atkinson personifies the farming sector’s hopes for the future.

"The beauty of agriculture is that it offers so much diversity; there is so much to keep you interested," Atkinson tells NFM.

"On our family farm for example, we move from animal health and nutrition, to selecting crop varieties, to running and maintaining machinery ultimately all to operate a profitable business."

Atkinson also has no doubt his university study will stand him in good stead for a future in the agricultural industry.

"The agricultural science degree offered me practical experiences while the business degree allowed me to appreciate farming from a business point of view, which is central to farming these days," he asserts.

But with six jobs for every agriculture graduate, and farm sector skills shortages identified as critical by a raft of studies and reports over the last decade, the reality is the agriculture sector needs many more bright sparks like Nicholas Atkinson than it currently has.

Currently the agriculture industry contributes 10 or 11 per cent of the Australian research effort a fact not recognised by many people.

The sector has spent a lot of money on evaluation since the 1950s which has meant we’re three times better off than we would be without that research effort.

We also publish internationally above our weight.

Nationally, one-third of Australian universities now offer places in agriculture-related courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, with most universities offering related courses in business and science fields.

Prior to last year’s federal election, agriculture units of study received the highest rate of government funding at $20, 284 per Commonwealth Supported Place in 2012.

NFM sought clarification from the current education minister Christopher Pyne about how the Coalition would approach funding for agriculture courses but was not provided a response by print deadline.

Meanwhile, the Australian agriculture sector, like many others, is suffering threats to productivity on the ground and losing capacity in research and development (R&D), where job opportunities have been restricted over last 5-10 years.

Universities and centres for the development of agriculture technologies have been doing it tough, with a vicious cycle of declining student numbers across the board and further reductions in funding decreasing the options available to students.

Despite a large body of exciting projects, it’s difficult to find and retain students with the drive to undertake research.

Of the six to ten students graduating per year from the traditional agricultural engineering area, the majority prefer to work in (well-paid) industry or business roles rather than research and development.

The experts say high levels of education are closely related to strong productivity. Statistics show operators who contribute most to GDP are more likely to have degrees compared with those that contribute less.

If we look at what happening in the rest of the community education is an absolute and we don’t want an industry that’s second rate in terms of education levels.

So where to from here for agriculture?

Read the full feature in the February issue of NewFarmMachinery on sale February 24. Subscribe to the magazine to have it delivered to you.

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