Key issues in agriculture and agribusiness education
This chapter considers the key issues explored by the committee in
agribusiness education. Topics covered include the:
- Delivery and content of agricultural and agribusiness education;
- Attraction of students at the secondary and tertiary levels;
- Costs of agricultural education for students and education
Role and importance of research in agriculture.
The committee received a diversity of views regarding the content and
skills that should be included in agricultural education. The committee received
evidence illuminating the tension between, on the one hand, industry's wish for
vocationally orientated graduates, and the universities' emphasis on high-level
academic skills, on the other.
It was put to the committee that it was necessary for courses to provide
a combination of knowledge from both technical and business fields.
While universities enjoy considerable freedom to design their own courses, at
the Vocational Education and Training (VET) level, courses adhere to a relevant
National Training Package (NTP). As explained by the Training Packages
Training Packages specify the skills and knowledge required
to perform effectively in the workplace...The development and endorsement
process for Training Packages ensures the specifications are developed to an
agreed quality standard and are highly responsive to industry's existing and
future demand for new skills.
The committee heard some criticisms of the content of the NTPs including
that the size of the curricula makes it difficult to fully understand them.
Furthermore, some included subjects such as 'Interpersonal Communication' and
'Quality Assurance' were argued to be extraneous and served to crowd-out
fundamental competencies in areas such as biology and business.
Many education providers emphasised the importance of endowing students
with a diverse skill set that allows them to acquire more vocational skills
following graduation. Representatives from UWA emphasised that agriculture
courses needed to teach students more than just how to do a job. The committee
heard about the qualities a student from UWA possesses:
Our students come out with their degree with a critical mind.
They have embedded generic skills within their degree and they have a clear
focus on the important issues in agriculture and how to address them.
The Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) similarly argued that it
was the job of tertiary institutions to teach students high-level analytical
skills so they can pursue any number of careers:
There are a number of degrees—you can take law or
medicine—and they have extra training on the job or whatever it is. Agriculture
is no different to that. Are they going to be work ready for the wide range of
organisations? It is pie in the sky, really. We have got to teach them how to
think in an agricultural context so when they go on to a farm or into an agribusiness
or wherever it is they can work out the problems and be developed into the sort
of employee that Elders or Rural Finance might want or NAB bank might want.
On the other hand, industry tended to argue that universities and other
training institutes needed to create work ready graduates. The committee heard
that at present, many tertiary institutions are producing graduates with strong
theoretical knowledge, but lacking in practical know-how which industry
The Dairy Industry People Development Council (DIPDC) reported a
common comment they received when consulting with their constituents: 'There is
no point giving a person a Diploma of Agriculture, and expecting industry to
value the qualification if they cannot milk the cows.' The importance of hands-on
experience was cited as essential to ensuring that agriculture and agribusiness
graduates (be it of VET or tertiary facilities) were equipped to launch their
careers. The committee received evidence that the misalignment between what is
taught and what industry requires may result in scepticism towards the value of
education in general.
The Australian Beef Industry Foundation (ABIF) noted that unless a
student is from a rural background, it is possible for them to complete some
agricultural courses without actually acquiring practical experience in the
The on-going success of Marcus Oldham College was cited as testament to the
value that industry, and importantly students, place on a practical approach to
education and training.
Education providers and industry need to work together to strike a
balance between graduates being work-ready and possessing a broad education.
The committee heard of a number of positive examples whereby employers were
working with education institutes to provide hands-on training and career
pathways to students to complement students' theoretical learning. For example,
Landmark reports that it has:
[P]artnered with one of the largest agricultural universities
in Australia and offered 'scholarships' to carefully selected third year
students who then undertake a block assignment with Landmark as well as casual
work over the year as part of their degree. They are then taken into the
graduate program the following year.
The committee also received evidence from Skills Tasmania indicating the
dairy industry in Tasmania had developed strong links with local Registered
Training Organisations (RTO) that had both increased the number of enrolments
and also helped the industry meet its own skills needs.
These examples suggest to the committee that the most effective training is
provided through partnerships between industry and training institutions.
School age education
The committee heard compelling evidence of the importance of introducing
students to agricultural education from an early age. Around 40 per cent of
children are thought to determine their preferred careers while still in
What is included in the curriculum and the manner in which it is taught impact
upon the efficacy of agricultural education in schools. Students interested in
agriculture can undertake VET subjects in secondary school – which introduce
them to some of the more practical elements – as well as choose subjects such
as maths and sciences which will enable them to study agriculture and agribusiness
related fields at university.
The committee received some evidence suggesting agricultural literacy in
schools is very low. A recent Australian Council for Educational Research
survey revealed that nearly half of year 10 students (usually around 16 years
of age) believed cotton socks were an animal product, and that 10 per cent of
first-year undergraduate students at the University of Sydney believed that
beef counted towards their vegetable intake.
It was put to the committee that it was necessary to increase the level of
agricultural literacy in the population in general, and that doing so would
have the added benefit of attracting more students to the field.
One frequently recommended means of raising the profile of agriculture in schools
was the inclusion of relevant material in the national curriculum.
This would not necessarily need to be a stand-alone subject: agriculture can be
successfully integrated into the study of other areas.
For example, agricultural case studies in business classes, animal welfare in
philosophy classes, and soil sciences in biology or chemistry would introduce
student to agricultural issues. It was posited by ACDA that:
[T]he national curriculum should include food and fibre
production in its cross-curriculum perspective, so that in all the subjects
that students do food and fibre production is used as part of the general
education in those curricula.
The Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was
enthusiastic about the potential of the new curriculum to bring about
[A]s a result of the learning opportunities provided by the
Australian curriculum, young people will have a better understanding of the
origins of food and fibre – the two terms that we have started using – and have
a better understanding of what it takes for us as a country to sustain that
There appears to be widespread support among teachers for exposing
students to agriculture related content. One hundred per cent of primary school
teachers and 91 per cent of secondary school teachers in a recent survey
stated that they believed it was either very or somewhat important that
students learn about food and fibre production.
Despite this enthusiasm, the committee heard that agriculture in schools is in
decline and that it is likely that 'agriculture will disappear from many
schools, even at the level of discussion in the curricula, much less as
Based on the evidence, it appears clear that if the resources available
to teachers are user friendly and readily available there is an appetite in the
teaching community to teach the material. Unfortunately, although there are
numerous resources available to teachers, they are often hard to find and not
optimised for contemporary educational practice. The Primary Industries Education Foundation (PIEF)
is currently undertaking a significant program of consolidation and outreach to
make materials readily available to educators.
The committee also heard that PIEF is attempting to facilitate a resource that
would allow schools and industry to connect so that students can gain a
critical first-hand look at agriculture.
The committee considers these projects of critical importance.
Schools and teachers in regional areas are not exempt from the
challenges of distance. Organisations such as PIEF have limited funds available
to achieve their goals and need to prioritise. As part of the 2011–12 Budget,
the government announced the Regional Education and Jobs Plan initiative. One
element of this program was the recruitment of 34 Regional Education, Skills
and Jobs Coordinators (Coordinators) in regional communities.
The committee was informed that: 'Regional Education, Skills and Jobs
Coordinators will draw from the range of locally available organisations,
program and initiatives.'
These Coordinators represent an existing network of links with local industry
and education bodies. This network may be an effective means to disseminate the
work of organisations such as PIEF to teachers beyond what is currently
possible with their modest budgets.
There is also a strong role to be played by local communities themselves
in promoting agricultural education. Teachers, local chambers of commerce, and
industry can work together to introduce students to possible career
Much depends on the knowledge and resources available to the teacher. The
committee believes that one practical way of achieving progress would be for
local communities to bridge the gap between new teachers and local industries,
as many teachers who move into rural areas may not have any connection with
agriculture or the food sector. The committee can foresee more and better
exposure by students to the realities of the industry through field visits,
visiting speakers, and work experience, all of which could be facilitated
through better engagement by local industry with teachers. This investment in
time and energy would continue to pay dividends even if teachers return to
metropolitan areas, where they would continue to disseminate a realistic (and
hopefully attractive) image of rural life to their urban students.
Before new teachers reach the classroom, there is the potential to
engage them with agriculture. Many tertiary institutes offering teacher
training are co-located with faculties of agriculture, such as the University
of Melbourne in Victoria and Curtin University in Western Australia. The
potential exists to expose trainee teachers in agriculture during their time at
university; knowledge they can later take to the classroom. Despite this
obvious advantage of being able to reach new teachers before they stand in a
classroom full of students (and potential agriculturalists), the committee
heard that minimal engagement actually takes place. Representatives from the
University of Melbourne reported: 'We have not done a lot of work on
it, frankly, but the Dean of Education, the Dean of Science and I have talked
about this a lot.'
The committee recommends that the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture
considers working with the Australian Council of Deans of
Education to strengthen engagement between agriculture and education faculties
during teacher education programs.
In the later years of schooling, students can also participate
in the VET-in-schools program. VET-in-schools provides students
with the opportunity to acquire vocationally focused skills. Skills Australia
argued that VET in schools has value in broadening opportunities for school students
and providing links to the local economy. However, stakeholders have expressed
concerns in relation to the quality and consistency of the program. As such, it
is argued that industry has insufficient confidence in the outcomes of this
initiative to maximise its potential.
Providing students access to industry on more than an observer basis was
put to the committee as a way of increasing the likelihood of students pursuing
agriculture and agribusiness careers post school. It is argued that schools
that consciously match the curriculum to local opportunities not only benefit
their students by enabling more hands-on opportunities, but also enables those
students to pursue careers locally following graduation.
It was suggested by Charles Sturt University (CSU) that initiatives to
encourage the agribusiness sector to accept students on work experience should
Critical in ensuring the success of VET-in-schools is the inclusion of
hands on experience and strong connections with local industries. Skills
Australia advocates for workplace training to be included as part of VET-in-schools
Adequate workplace training is essential for ensuring
students are work-ready upon graduation, but also allows students access to the
most up-to-date technology used by industry.
Although the higher education sector is strongly in favour of VET in
schools as a way of promoting agriculture to students, some sectors of industry
have reservations. It was reported to the committee that the dairy industry,
for example, would consider it appropriate that Certificate II level
qualifications were offered through schools where appropriate work placements
and employment skills are included.
The DIPDC cautioned against offering Certificate III level qualifications in
The industry has expectations that Certificate III graduates
are competent farm hands on a par with other 'trade' graduates and are able to
work on a dairy farm. The industry has strong reservations about the capacity
of secondary schools to teach this level of study and provide the industry and
workplace currency required.
Committee view of VET-in-schools
Given the importance of agriculture to Australia and humanity, the
committee considers that serious efforts need to be made to ensure that today's
students understand the fundamentals of agriculture to ensure they are equipped
with the skills and knowledge to overcome tomorrow's challenges. Only through
regular, meaningful exposure will students develop the necessary passion for
food and fibre to inspire a future career in that field. However, VET in
schools qualifications must meet industry standards and include necessary
practical elements to ensure that industry has confidence in the training on
The committee recommends that the Government continues to provide
financial support for the promotion of agriculture in primary and secondary
schools, such as the work undertaken by the Primary Industry Centre for Science
Education and the Primary Industries Education Foundation.
Animal welfare in education
Animal welfare – along with food safety and product provenance – is an important
matter for consumers.
The committee heard that agricultural education needs to deal with animal
welfare issues to reflect the concerns of consumers and retailers.
Some groups argued to the committee that this rising consumer awareness
requires the incorporation of animal welfare principles into the agricultural curricula.
As consumers are increasingly considering social concerns in their purchase
decisions, it is important for industry to react to these market changes by
including appropriate standards in agricultural production.
The majority of submissions received were in favour of including animal
welfare principles in agricultural education, so long as those principles are
practically based and strike a balance between the needs of the animals and the
realities of primary industry.
Animal rights activist organisations like Animals' Angels advocate for
specific training in animal welfare and proper animal handling. Animals' Angels
argue that: 'Compliance with the Animal Welfare Acts, Australian Standards for
the Export of Livestock and Codes of Practice can be achieved when the industry
is required to initiate training schemes.'
On the other hand, some stakeholder groups argued to the committee that
additional requirements regarding animal welfare are unnecessary, given the
Australian industry already follows best practice. Similarly, ACDA argues that
in tertiary education 'animal production is taught in the context of best
practice and that necessarily includes animal welfare principles.'
However, Animals' Angels argues that as there are no statutory definitions of
'best practice' or 'competent' in Australia, such claims are entirely
subjective. Animals' Angels points to the example of the European Union and
Israel who both have clearly articulated definitions.
Further, many submitters argued that there already exists significant
consideration of animal welfare in the tertiary curriculum. For instance, UWA
includes the subject Clean, Green and Ethical Production Systems as part
of its teaching program in animal welfare principles,
and Murdoch University offers the unit Animal and Human Bioethics.
The committee recognises that there is growing community interest in
animal welfare, including in the primary production sector. However, based on
the evidence received, and noting that improvements are always possible, it
appears to the committee that universities and RTOs adequately address animal
welfare issues in their courses.
Discussions of what is included in, and the focus of, agricultural and agribusiness
education inevitably lead to discussions of its delivery. Agricultural and agribusiness
education face several challenges. This section discusses issues such as thin
markets and provision of hands-on experience, which are of particular relevance
to the delivery of agriculture related education.
At the tertiary level, there is a variety of delivery options to allow
students to pursue agricultural careers. These options include different course
structures, as well as the option to study at the under- and post-graduate
Traditionally, students wishing to pursue careers in agriculture and agribusiness
have undertaken a 4-year undergraduate degree specialising in a single area
such as 'agriculture' or 'agronomy', or a broad degree such as a 3-year
Bachelor of Science with majors in areas such as 'agricultural
science'. Early degree courses in Agribusiness were built around an industry
placement component mid-way through the course. This had the benefit of the
student understanding the relevance of study undertaken to date, better focus
on subsequent subject matter in the latter part of the course and often a
guarantee of employment post graduation back at the company they had worked as
As well as the standard three-year undergraduate degree traditionally
offered, The University of Melbourne (UoM) and UWA both encourage students to
undertake broad 3-year undergraduate degrees, followed by 2-year specialised
Masters' degrees in a specific area. This model reflects the education system
used in the United States of America and in European countries
covered by the Bologna Treaty. It is argued by UWA that this model will 'raise
the expectation of students that a minimum standard for agricultural tertiary
education is a 3-year undergraduate degree followed by a 2-year masters'
One argument in favour of this new model of tertiary education is that
more students will be attracted to agricultural careers by being exposed to it
in their undergraduate degree, and that students will be able to make more
informed career decisions by deferring specialisation until after they have
completed their undergraduate education.
However, the model has also been criticised in the past as being more expensive
for students who have to study for an additional year.
Another approach, currently being used by Victoria's La Trobe
University, to better facilitate the needs of rural students is the use of
multiple campuses. In the case of La Trobe University, students can undertake
their first year of study at the Albury-Wodonga campus and then complete their
studies in Melbourne. The benefits of this program, as explained by the
This helps students by reducing the costs incurred in the
relocation to Melbourne for one year. The regional campus also provides a very
supportive environment in which regional students can make the critical
transition to university studies.
In the VET sector, many of the NTPs include blocks of education in which
students attend classes for a block of time in between extended industry
placements. The committee heard concerns that the NTPs for many agriculture
related courses are not meeting their objectives because they fail to take into
account the unique requirements of agriculture, or specific elements of
agribusiness. Vocational training for professions such as a motor mechanic,
book-keeper or hairdresser can be delivered at any time of the year, whereas
the 'block release' methods of instruction are not suited to agricultural
professions. As succinctly put by Rural Skills Australia: 'Our
industries generally do not or cannot cater for educational activities that go
on for a long period of time.'
This is different in industries such as horticulture however due to the
seasonal nature of the work. For example:
A trainee might be programmed for specific training delivery
based on seasonality of subject matter but, a major deviation from the
scheduled crop production program may occur, then, in principle both theory and
practical demonstration must wait for a further twelve months before the timing
is right for the delivery of that subject matter...It is important to deliver
theory and practical application of that theory as close together as possible.
The National Training Package does not recognise or acknowledge the primary
fact that plants 'Do Not' take the weekend off.
The committee heard that in many instances, a trainee or apprentice may
be the only full-time employee of a business. They will likely have discrete
responsibilities and be intimately involved in the operation. For the employer
to have to release that person for a month at a time can severely disrupt the
business for limited benefit to the employee.
The committee heard that stakeholders of Skills Tasmania strongly emphasized
that production should not be compromised in the name of training.
A more flexible model of training that recognises the specific requirements of
agribusiness may encourage more employers to hire unskilled staff and support
The committee heard that thin markets in regional and rural areas
present special problems in providing skills training for agribusiness. A 'thin
market' is one which lacks sufficient demand to create a viable supply. It was
reported to the committee that the primary production sector has the
characteristics of a thin market where demand for VET services has been modest
and delivery made more difficult by the geographic diffuseness of the industry.
The committee heard that even well-resourced businesses struggled to
provide their staff with the training they would like because of the challenges
of geography. SunRice benefits from well developed internal training
mechanisms, but related to the committee an example in which they attempted to
facilitate their future leaders completing 'Manufacturing Management' programs.
SunRice reports however that:
Due to the distance from Sydney and Melbourne-based tertiary
institutions, these programs have not got off the ground – with insufficient
numbers to run a series of programs that would be necessary for shift workers.
Even despite our efforts, our labour force suffers from a lack of exposure to other
'ways of working', and experience gained elsewhere to benchmark, understand and
aspire to best practice in each professional field.
Although the competition among RTOs is driving quality and price
improvements for students, excessive competition in thin trading markets can
have a negative overall influence, especially in regional areas. In some cases,
thin markets preclude the involvement of private enterprise altogether. Lower
class sizes lead to higher delivery costs, and also reduce the funds available
to hire 'industry credible specialists' as teachers.
Skills Australia recommends that the role of public providers in regional and
remote areas be clearly spelt out to ensure the ongoing availability of high
quality, afforded training in isolated areas.
If public institutions adopt private-sector models too closely, there is a risk
that thin regional markets may not be serviced at all.
Tocal College's submission articulated the current tension between
existing funding arrangements and servicing thin markets:
The current focus primarily on state based funding makes it
difficult for agricultural training markets to be properly serviced. The
markets are thin and dispersed and as a result no one state can offer a
critical mass of individuals to undertake training. An RTO finds it extremely
difficult to run the one course funded across a range of state authorities.
Therefore, thin markets are difficult to address and are often missing out.
This particularly applies to agriculture which has not only thin markets by
nature, but also highly dispersed.
There are signs that industry is currently attempting to overcome the
challenges posed by thin training markets. An example is provided by the DIPDC:
[T]he NCDEA has commenced piloting a national NCDEA Diploma
in Agriculture that will meet the needs of the Australian dairy industry and
will be jointly delivered by alliance partners in line with their teaching capacity.
This approach aims for the cross delivery of units between RTOs in different
states using e-learning. It seeks to get economies of scale with student
numbers as well as access to specialist teaching expertise of each of the
The rapid advancement of information and communications technology has
the potential to be a critical tool in providing greater access to education
and training in rural and remote areas.
This is discussed further in the following section of this chapter.
Consistent with evidence from Sunrice, Tocal College and the DIPDC, the
committee considers that addressing the challenges of thin training markets is
critical to ensuring an adequate supply of skilled workers to facilitate
industry growth. The committee understands that there are initiatives afoot
through the Council of Australian Government Reform Council's National
Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development to improve the national
delivery of VET.As
a state administered function serving a national industry, there needs to be a
partnership between industry, RTOs and governments to address the problem.
The committee recommends that the Department of Innovation,
Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education reviews the impediments to
seamless national delivery of agriculture and agribusiness education in the
Vocational Education and Training sector.
The committee recommends that the Department of Innovation,
Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education consult with state and
territory agencies and relevant industry bodies to determine the most
appropriate delivery model for Vocational Education and Training in the
agricultural and agribusiness sector with a view to ensuring adequate funding
which will deliver the most effective training outcomes for employees and
The geographical diffuseness – and sometimes isolation – of the agriculture
and agribusiness workforces can make the delivery of agribusiness education
difficult. In order to cater to this isolated market, many universities and
RTOs now offer courses via distance education enabling students to learn at
home and access support and materials via the internet.
The use of new web-based learning platforms was suggested to the
committee as a means to help overcome the difficulties of distance and also
encourage professional networking and knowledge sharing.
Online education is particularly promising when it comes to overcoming thin
training markets as it allows students to undertake training in their own time,
wherever they are, without having to go and sit in a classroom.
On the balance of evidence received, it appears that online learning will be a
significant tool in addressing the skills shortage, especially as it relates to
up-skilling the existing workforce.
Distance education also offers the opportunity for workers in other
industries to undertake courses at the same time as meeting their current
commitments. The fly-in, fly-out timetables used by the resources sector appear
to be a natural fit in this regard. It is anticipated that at some point the
mining boom will either slow down, or workers will search out new challenges.
Many employees in the resource sector have already demonstrated willingness to
work in non-metropolitan areas and many of the skill sets in the resources
sector, such as skilled tradespeople, intersect with agriculture and
agribusiness. The ease with which many agricultural workers were able to transition
into the mining sector offers hope that the reverse could occur in the future. Accessing
agriculture or agribusiness related education while working in the resource
sector may offer a promising source of workers to alleviate the current skills
shortage, but also ensure that those workers who wish to stay in rural areas
are not forced back to the city for want of furthering their education.
Learning in stages
The committee heard that a move away from formal accreditation and
qualifications towards a 'skills passport' approach may attract more workers to
complete further training in agriculture, as industry values skills over
As expressed by the National Farmers' Federation:
The Government model is a one-size-fits-all, that being that
training packages result in qualifications. Industry is calling for skill sets
where employees can take training as needs be at an operational level.
The Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and
Tertiary Education articulated for the committee the government's position
on the structure of education:
If we think about the [Council of Australian Government]
targets, what we are trying to do is get people full qualifications, so we
actually do want them to finish and get a full certificate III and above. That
is certainly where we are wanting to go in terms of COAG and of halving the
number of people who do not have a certificate at that level.
In spite of the government's targets, statistics provided by
AgriFood Skills Australia highlight the emphasis on skills rather
than full qualifications in industry and among workers:
The issue for us is skill sets. There are important. There
are 87,000 people now enrolled in vocational training. Only 20 per cent ever
finish those things...People are going in and doing what they want, but they
are also running with their feet in that they get what they want out of a
course and that is enough to do a job and get a job, but then they pull out.
The low levels of take-up and completion of formal qualifications may
also be indicative of industry attempting to maximise productivity and minimise
costs associated with their workforce. The Food, Fibre and Timber Industry
Training Council (WA) Inc. argued that the greatest productivity gain from
training comes from providing unqualified workers with basic skills.
This may work against the government's objective of increasing the number of
people with more advanced qualifications.
Evidence provided to the committee indicates that the lower education
completion rates in agriculture are not the result of any inherent difference
in the composition of the workforce, but are a reflection of the environment in
which they do business. The following example was provided to the committee:
Where you have a requirement – such as having to get a
qualification to get a meatworker – there are completion rates of between 80
per cent and 90 percent. Where it is not absolutely required to get or
stay in a job, you do what you want. Secondly, our industries often do not need
full qualifications, so they probably do not promote it as much as they should,
Attracting students to agriculture and agribusiness careers
Although the content and delivery of agriculture and agribusiness
education are critical in ensuring that industry and academia have qualified
people available to them, it becomes something of a moot point if there are no
students to teach. A key issued raised during this inquiry has been the problem
of attracting and retaining students at both tertiary and Vocational Education
and Training (VET) level and secondary school level.
As early as 1991, the McColl Report spoke of the decline in student
enrolments in higher education agriculture-related courses. The report
contended that this decline was due to the poor perception of agricultural
careers by the general public, and the failure of the agricultural sector to
promote the courses and opportunities available.
Skills Tasmania put it to the committee that negative perceptions of agriculture
remain a significant factor impacting on student recruitment.
Many students possess a narrow or non-existent understanding of the
career opportunities and courses available to them in agriculture and agribusiness.
It is difficult for students to choose to pursue a career in agriculture when
they do not know what options are available to them, or what their careers
might look like.
As noted by Dr Livingstone of Marcus Oldham College:
[W]hen you think about what does a doctor do, what [does] a
lawyer do, what does an accountant do – all of society have a fair grasp of
what those people do. But if we say you are a farmer or a grazier or you are
studying agriculture then the population really does not have a very good idea
about what that person does.
In order to overcome the challenge of attracting a sufficient number of
students to agriculture to meet future demand, the committee heard that it is
necessary to reshape existing perceptions of the sector. It was argued to the
...the first-and-foremost task would be to convince those
people who might want to pursue a career in agriculture that it is not about
regional services being less than they might expect in a metropolitan region,
that it is not about seasonal conditions that are depressing, that it is not
about depression itself, that it is not about suicide—it is not about all those
social factors that one reads about when you talk about agriculture.
In order to address the lack of knowledge in the community at large, and
in students in particular, there are a number of programs currently underway.
The Primary Industries Centre for Science Education
program (PICSE) aims to 'foster and support young people’s interest in science,
and their subsequent participation in tertiary study leading to research or
careers relating to the Food Security sector.'
Similarly, PIEF's mission is to 'inform students, teachers and the broader
community about the primary industries and the career opportunities which they
The raison d'être for both these programs is to advance the knowledge
of, and interest in, agriculture among school age students.
There was widespread support for both of these bodies from industry, and
numerous key stakeholders expressed support of the work of PIEF and PICSE as
they continue to introduce students to agriculture and equip teachers to bring
agriculture to the classroom.
The committee notes and supports the government's commitment of $225 000
over three years to the PIEF to ensure they can continue their work.
As well as continuing to support PIEF, the committee considers that ongoing
support of PISCE – an industry and education partnership program designed to
stimulate student interest in studying science at university with a pathway
into primary industry – is critical to ensure that there is a flow of students
from schools into further education and careers in agribusiness.
The committee recommends that the government explores options for
the Regional Higher Education, Skills and Jobs Coordinators to work with
organisations such as the Primary Industries Education Foundation to raise the
profile of agriculture in schools.
Just as primary and secondary students are now being informed of the
opportunities available to them, tertiary students also need to be informed of
the their opportunities. The Birchip Cropping Group's submission calls for
future employers to reach out to tertiary students from a variety of
disciplines – not necessarily exclusively agribusiness – by offering specific,
real world career examples, familiarisation tours, work experience and
Similarly, the University of Tasmania argues that: 'Industry peak
bodies need to sell agricultural careers, they need to be the ones in the
market promoting the sector to students.'
Re-writing the food sector narrative to inspire young citizens,
revitalise the existing workforce, and tighten the bonds that have loosened
between metropolitan and regional areas was highlighted as a key area of
concern for stakeholders. The community – young people in particular – need to
be informed of the challenging, varied and rewarding careers available in food
and fibre production, value adding, processing, marketing and retailing for
both Australian consumers and the rapidly increasing populations in Asia. As
succinctly put by GPA, attracting students is the only way to solve the
challenges facing agribusiness:
If we want to attract sharp minds that are going to solve the
productivity dilemmas that we face into the future, we need to make this
somewhere that is attractive to be.
The costs of post-secondary and higher education are likely to act as a
deterrent for many students, and employers considering further training for
their workforce. This section will discuss the cost of agriculture and agribusiness
education for students at both the VET and tertiary level.
Agriculture, and the students who are considering careers in it, are both
price sensitive. Analysis undertaken by the Victorian Department of Primary
Industries and the
National Centre for Dairy Education Australia (NCDEA)
revealed that price sensitivity is a relevant factor in industry engaging in
Deloitte Access Economics also found that agricultural students are more susceptible
to price change than most other sectors.
Although the reasons behind the high levels of price sensitivity in industry
and among students are difficult to identify, it is clearly a barrier to
education that should be considered in formulating policy.
The committee heard that the cost of some agricultural university
courses may be dissuading some students from pursuing those courses. For
example, a veterinary science degree usually lasts between five and six years
with tuition fees ranging up to $250 000.
A four-year agriculture degree would cost in excess of $30 000 in course fees
alone. It was pointed out that in the current market three-year science and
natural resources management degree graduates were having no trouble finding
work in the sector. Traditionally agriculture has been a four-year degree. With
the current shortage of labour in the agribusiness sector there is little
incentive for students to undertake a four-year degree when a three-year degree
offers the same opportunities upon graduation, may attract lower fees, and
results in a reduced debt upon graduation.
The committee received many recommendations to include agriculture on
the National Priority Disciplines list.
Inclusion on this list would reduce student contributions by around $3500 per
year and importantly would send a clear message that the government considers
agriculture to be a national priority.
Unfortunately, the government's decision to cease funding reduced student
contributions for national priority areas has closed a promising avenue to
increase the profile and appeal of an agribusiness education. Listing
agribusiness as a 'National Priority' would also have sent a strong positive
message to future students.
The committee heard that some kind of student loan relief could be used
as a way to attract young graduates to rural and regional areas and overcome,
at least to some extent, price sensitivities.
In order to attract metropolitan students, a significant vein of largely untapped
talent, some kind of loan relief could be considered as an incentive.
Additional student financial assistance such as scholarships were also
However, La Trobe University argues that the provision of scholarships alone is
insufficient to adequately address the agricultural skills shortage without
efforts to address the misconceptions that surround agribusiness careers.
The committee also heard about the high costs for students undertaking
VET courses. Students undertaking VET courses through an RTO are ineligible to
receive HECS-HELP which would enable a student to fully defer their student
contribution until after they have graduated and commenced working. Instead,
VET students undertaking a diploma-level course or above can receive FEE-HELP
which carries a loan fee of 20 per cent, but allows students to defer payment
until they graduate.
Due to the loan fee applied, a three-year course that attracts fees of $12 000
per year would result in a student owing almost $44 000.
Although this situation is not specific to agriculture, very high costs may
discourage potential students.
Students wishing to pursue agricultural higher-research degrees face
related cost challenges. The road to a research career is a long and Spartan
one, especially in the early years. The committee heard that the stipend
received by postgraduate scholars, in the region of $22 000 per annum with no
superannuation, was a primary discouraging factor for students. Professor
Spithill from La Trobe University related a common refrain from
students: 'why would I do a PhD on $22 000 a year? Make it $40 000 and I'm
interested, but I'm just not interested in being poor, basically.' The stipend value
is around 80 per cent of the minimum wage.
It was pointed out by the University of Adelaide that the brightest
students who have the potential to become excellent research scientists, were
likely to be offered well-paying jobs when they graduate from their
undergraduate degrees, rendering them unavailable to undertake research degrees. Although
unable to compete with the salaries on offer from the mining sector, some graduates
from agricultural courses command competitive salaries of up to $60 000 per
The committee heard that some bodies, the GRDC for example, were offering
excellent scholarships that meant researchers may receive around $40 000 per
year, but this still compares poorly with industry. It was argued to the
committee that the funds disbursed through postgraduate scholarships might be
more effective if there were fewer scholarships offered but with a higher value
attached to them. 
Cost of education for
The students who are most attracted to formalised education in
agricultural sectors – those from the country – need to overcome some of the
greatest barriers to accessing that education. The 2008 Federal Government
Review of Higher Education (the Bradley Report) highlights the issue of
People from regional and remote parts of Australia remain
seriously under-represented in higher education and the participation rates for
both have worsened in the last five years...Retention of the regional group has
also been decreasing relative to urban students and retention rates are now 3
per cent below the rates of the reminder of the student population. The success
and retention patterns for remote students are of much greater concern. The
indicator levels are very low compared with their non-remote peers. For
example, success rates are currently 9 per cent below and retention is
13 per cent below the rates of other students.
It is widely recognised that students from rural backgrounds face
additional financial hardships in accessing tertiary education.
Several submissions noted that the recent changes to the eligibility
requirements for Youth Allowance have 'disproportionately affected rural
students, providing a disincentive for them to move from home to study at
The committee heard that a potential way to attract more rural students
to university involved modifying or waiving the qualification time required to
establish independence in relation to student income support. It was argued by
ACDA that 'for prospective students who take the "gap" period in
order to qualify, the attrition rate is high and is thus counterproductive in
The committee heard that agriculture is a very expensive course for
universities to deliver due to the necessity of acquiring and maintaining
up-to-date equipment, facilities and low staff-to-student ratios.
Agriculture courses are expensive because of a combination of low
student numbers and high fixed costs from salaries and infrastructure.
It is difficult to teach agricultural courses without significant hands-on
components and these require access to facilities such as land, animals, and
machinery. As explained by CSU:
[I]n-field and other 'hands-on' practical experience is a
vitally important component of the education of agricultural science students
to enable them to rapidly and competently contribute to meeting the national
challenges of enhancing agricultural productivity, export earnings, and the
quality of environmental stewardship. The provision of these practical skills
requires the funding of appropriately specialised and experienced academic and
technical staff at lower than usual student:staff rations to satisfy both the
requisite learning outcomes and meet the necessary health and safety, and where
necessary, animal welfare requirements associated with those activities.
As student cohorts decrease in size through falling enrolment levels,
the costs associated with teaching students increase as economies of scale are
lost. It was reported to the committee that the cost of utilising field
facilities, laboratories, excursions and the like become prohibitive as student
numbers decline, and this can result in declining course quality.
For example consider the following hypothetical. Suppose that a university
maintains a working farm to allow students to undertake practical training, and
the farm has the capacity for 100 students. Regardless of whether there are 80
students or 30 students using the facilities the costs do not vary greatly as
the primary expenses are the capital expenditure to purchase property and plant
and ongoing maintenance. La Trobe University in Melbourne noted that it may be
forced to sell its on-campus farm reserve in order to restore other teaching
infrastructure in the future.
Murdoch University reported to the committee that government funding for
agricultural education at the tertiary level is inadequate, forcing
universities to subsidise agriculture courses. Even in courses that remain
popular with students, such as veterinary science, institutions find themselves
struggling with funding in order to maintain low staff-to-student ratios and
hands-on components. For universities, it was reported that there is a funding
gap of around $7000 per student annually compared to the government
contribution and the cost to deliver the course. When a faculty has several
hundred students, this is a significant impost.
The Commonwealth provides agricultural units of study with the highest
level of funding support available through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme for
higher education students. The Commonwealth contributed $19 542 per
Commonwealth Supported Place in 2011.
VET training is substantially provided by state governments with the
Commonwealth contributing through specific programs such as the Productivity
Place Program for individual students, and through mechanisms such as the
Education Investment Fund for infrastructure development. In 2010 around 47 per
cent ($3.3 billion) of VET operating revenue came from state and territory
governments and 29 per cent ($2 billion) from the Commonwealth government.
During the inquiry the committee heard that funding for some VET
qualifications has continued to diminish. For example, Longerenong College
reported that the student contact hour rate has recently decreased from $7.80
to $5.25 for the Advanced Diploma of Agriculture. In order to continue to offer
high quality courses student fees have to be raised as government funding
Similarly, the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) noted that
fee support has been effectively halved for diploma level qualifications in
recent times increasing the costs for students.
Clearly agricultural education is both expensive to teach and is facing
competitive pressures within universities. In order to adequately fund the
teaching of agribusiness at universities, and in particular regional
universities, it was suggested by the Hon. Dr Hendy Cowan that the government
apply funding loading of 50 per cent to agricultural colleges.
Some universities also suggested to the committee that increasing the loading
for agriculture and agribusiness related education would be of great assistance.
Even if the government is able to provide greater support to education
in the short term, industry will be required to invest more money into
scholarships, marketing and work experience to ease some of the budgetary
pressure on education institutes.
The education sector needs to engage with industry regarding how they can work
together, and not simply expect industry to provide money.
The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association argued that practical
training within industry would minimise costs for education providers while
maintaining opportunities for hands-on training for students.
. Universities would no longer have to maintain expensive agricultural
facilities such as farming land and dairies. Students would also have the
opportunity to gain practical experience in a cutting edge environment. Skills
Australia similarly argued for a collaborative approach between industry,
government and education providers.
Industry has been supportive of research efforts in the past, but they
need to contribute more to meeting their own human resource needs. The
committee heard that there was already some industry involvement with groups
such as the Australian Wool Education Trust and Meat and Livestock Australia
providing support and encouragement to agricultural education.
Positive examples show the way, but industry needs to follow en-mass to ensure
they have the skills they need.
From 2012, universities in Australia are being funded based on the
number of students they enrol, a system known as demand-based funding. Demand-based
funding models are increasingly in vogue as a means to ensure that training is
responsive to the needs of industry and individuals in a dynamic economy. In
its submission, DEEWR reported that from 2012 public universities will no
longer be limited in the number of student places they offer. As DEEWR
explains: 'Under the demand driven funding system, higher education providers
will decide how many places they will offer and in which disciplines in
response to employer and student demand.'
At the most rudimentary level, this change means that universities will receive
more funding the more students they enrol.
The 2010 report Higher Education Base Funding Review chaired by
Dr Jane Lomax-Smith identified agriculture-related courses as in need
of additional funding contributions from both the Commonwealth and students to
accurately reflect the cost of the education provided under a demand-based
The committee heard a number of concerns regarding the impact of
demand-based funding on agriculture and agribusiness education at both the
tertiary and VET-level. The Director of the Centre for the Study of Rural
Australia at Marcus Oldham College, Dr Simon Livingstone,
Faculties are being appraised against their ability to
generate income. Agriculture rates unfavourably as a contributor to university
financial health compared, for example, to business and law programs.
One of the possible negative effects to emerge from the move towards
demand-based funding in higher education is the mismatch between students'
choice of course and the skills requirements of industry.
As put by one university, the new system is 'a funding regime that rewards
large class sizes'. 
It was noted by UWA that the decline of funding for university places limits
the ability of institutions to be innovative, for fear that something new will
not be as attractive to students as current options, thereby constraining them
to older practices.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth appears not to have acted on Dr
Lomax-Smith's call for additional funding for agriculture under the new
regime. DEEWR submitted that:
Industries, such as agriculture, can work with schools,
universities, and organisations like the Primary Industry Centre for Science
Education, to encourage students to undertake courses that meet the needs of
the labour market.
Some stakeholders in the VET arena expressed reservations about the potential
future application of this model to agriculture courses in VET. It was argued
that demand-based funding favours low-costs courses, and many prospective
providers will focus their efforts on them. Courses such as agriculture are
expensive to deliver and therefore less profitable for institutions leading to
the decline of those courses.
It was reported to the committee that research funding provided to
universities is generally insufficient to cover the actual costs of undertaking
research. This underfunding is often in the order of 25–50 per cent which must
be met from within the university's budget.
One of the reasons put to the committee that agricultural education is
so expensive is that many universities have moved to a funding model that
charges fixed amounts for space and facilities used in research. Murdoch
University explains the challenge this poses for agriculture:
Simply by virtue of the nature and scope of agricultural
research, e.g., glasshouses, animal housing, laboratories, research farm
infrastructure, faculties/schools conducting research are therefore charged
more for space used to conduct the research.
The committee heard that although the return on investment for
agricultural research is relatively high, that benefit often does not accrue to
the university itself. Furthermore, it was posited that:
The value of some of the work done by agricultural
researchers is less obvious because it stops losses rather than producing
gains. The program to counter rust in cereal crops is a prime example. If this
program did not exist, annual losses of more than $100m would occur.
Funding for agriculture related research in universities through
Australian Research Council Grants has not enjoyed a high success rate.
It was put to the committee that securing funding for agriculture was 'very,
Universities have historically been major players in agriculture
research, but as student numbers decrease and funding is allocated away from
agricultural faculties, their research capacities are at risk of erosion.
In response to these pressures, some universities have pursued a path of
collaboration with other bodies to maximise use of available funding. The
University of Tasmania reported:
The School of Agricultural Science set the national trend in
1997 with the partial co-location and merger with the state agency research
facilities via the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research Joint Venture
Agreement. This has allowed for staff consolidation, the sharing of specialist
facilities and the maintaining of a critical mass of staff involved in
agriculture within the University.
Similarly, CSU and La Trobe University both reported that they have
established partnerships with other government research bodies to maximise
their research potential.
Along with strengthening ties to other government and private sector research
bodies, the committee considers that it is important for universities to
increase collaboration among academics, researchers and facilities. Some of the
costs of agricultural research may be minimised by the sharing of facilities,
data, and capital.
Due to a shortage of government funding, industry-funded research now
represents a higher proportion of all agricultural research. This change has
significantly narrowed the pool of available talent and also resulted in
research that is more commercially focused as opposed to broader general
industry advancement programs.
The committee recommends that the Australian Council of Deans of
Agriculture work with member universities to develop a collaboration framework
to optimise research investment and improve knowledge transfer in agriculture
and agribusiness research.
The decline in the number of agriculture and agribusiness
The decline, and in some cases outright closure, of regionally based
agricultural colleges is of particular concern to the committee. The decline of
the old pillars of agricultural education in Australia such the Muresk
Institute in Western Australia, the Hawkesbury Agricultural College in New
South Wales – among others – are a sad indication of the health of the sector.
Shortly after the commencement of this inquiry it was announced that
agricultural enrolments at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College would
be suspended due to a lack of student interest. The demise of one of the oldest
and most prestigious agricultural colleges is a siren song that should not be
Australia currently has 39 universities but well under a third provide
agriculture related courses. Given that there were 23
campuses providing agriculture or agricultural science degrees in the 1980s and
that now there are fewer than 10 in the 2010s, the decline is readily apparent.
The place of agriculture within universities has also been in decline: when the
University of Western Australia was established in 1911 the
School of Agriculture was the second largest faculty on campus, today
it is the second smallest.
A result of the closure of many regional agricultural colleges and
campuses has been a consolidation of agricultural education providers in the
major cities. There are now only four campuses in regional Australia offering
agriculture related degrees.
Some submissions argued that this geographic consolidation is more
important than the overall decline in the number of facilities. Metropolitan
universities do not provide students with the same level of practical
experience as regional agricultural colleges, and they may be more difficult
for regional students to access.
Falling agriculture enrolments and metropolitan consolidation threaten
the ongoing existence of the agricultural colleges that remain, and which have
previously been an important element in the education spectrum between the more
theoretically-focused universities, and skills-orientated VET providers.
Graduates of tertiary agricultural colleges have a combination of practically
orientated skills as well as a strong foundation in agriculture, business,
science, and agriculture specific practical knowledge. While university-based
agricultural degrees are obviously important for producing tomorrow's
researchers, developers, and scientists, the committee heard that at present,
many tertiary institutions are producing graduates with strong theoretical
knowledge, but lacking in practical know-how. It was submitted that
many employers prefer graduates from more vocationally focussed courses that
also include sufficient theory to enable them to boost productivity, solve
challenging problems, and implement new practices.
The decline of agricultural colleges has also removed the clearest
pathway from VET to higher education. The committee is of the view that more
support needs to be provided to students to transition from VET courses – where
many students discover their interests and professional aptitudes – to tertiary
courses that will enable them to become leaders in their field. The committee
heard that agricultural colleges – such as the Muresk Institute – once
bridged the divide between research universities and VET providers. With the
decline of agricultural colleges, alternative arrangements need to be put in
place to ensure that students can seamlessly transition from VET to higher
The foremost factor put to the committee in explaining the decline of
regional campuses is the costs associated with maintaining them. The financial
metrics used by large metropolitan universities may result in negative outcomes
for regional campuses. The move to a competitive, demand-driven, funding model
was highlighted to the committee as a significant threat to the longevity of
agricultural colleges which have higher funding requirements and comparatively
low student numbers.
Describing the decision to close the Muresk Institute, the Hon. Dr Hendy
[T]he Muresk Institute was closed by Curtin University
because the financial administration of Curtin University determined that it
was costing more to deliver an undergraduate degree to a student at Muresk than
it was to deliver the same degree at Bentley [in Perth]. As a consequence,
Muresk was to be wound down and the course offered at Bentley.
A recent review of regional agricultural tertiary providers found that
only two – the University of New England at Armidale in
New South Wales and Marcus Oldham College near Geelong in Victoria – remain
sustainable as independent entities.
Other regional campuses that offer agriculture related courses fall under the
umbrella of larger city-based campuses who cross-subsidies their regional
The example of Marcus Oldham College is an indication that the
traditional structure of agricultural colleges that straddle research focused
universities and vocationally orientated VET providers remain viable. The
Principal of Marcus Oldham College – a private regional provider of
agribusiness education that continues to maintain viable cohorts of students – posited
to the committee that its success is:
Because we have been independent, we have been managed solely
by [our] board. We have not been influenced necessarily by outside bodies that
have said that we should be offering these sorts of courses or these sorts of
programs, so I think there has been real strength in governance.
The example of Marcus Oldham College highlights that regional campuses
providing agricultural and agribusiness education and training still have the
potential to remain economically viable. A key difference between the example
of Marcus Oldham College and those universities that no longer offer
agribusiness is that the decision to offer agribusiness courses is based on
more than fiscal interests alone.
The committee is of the view that tertiary agricultural colleges are an
important element in the agricultural education framework that fill an important
void between research-focused universities and vocation-focused VET providers.
In regions where there are no longer any tertiary agricultural colleges
additional efforts need to be made to strengthen the arrangements to facilitate
VET students and workers with considerable industry experience accessing higher
The committee recommends that the government commissions a study
inquiring into the most appropriate higher education framework to support
high-level, practically-focused agribusiness education with a view to
implementing the national food plan. The review should consider governance and
funding arrangements (recognising the significant costs of delivering
agricultural and farm studies), the effectiveness of regional campuses, needs
of industry and students, and pathways between VET and higher education.
A corollary of the decline in the number of agricultural and agribusiness
education providers is the impact it has on the number of instructors and
researchers available for agricultural education. Two seemingly contradictory
trends coexist in Australian higher education institutions teaching agriculture
and agribusiness: a shortage of qualified academics and teachers, and staff
cuts that discourage students from pursuing academic careers.
Universities are facing a skills shortage of their own when it comes to
finding adequate staff to teach agricultural courses and undertake research. The
University of Western Australia reported that:
We advertised for a professor of entomology and we had to
advertise for almost two years. Finally we got one from the United States. So,
for a lot of our highly talented scientists and teachers, we have to depend on
At the same time as universities are struggling to fill available
positions, La Trobe University's submission reports a steady decline of
agricultural staff at that university.
The committee heard of the impacts on staff caused by declining students
It has been a sad story of decline and constraint. It almost
followed the student numbers down. They fell and then our staff numbers were
cut by almost 50 per cent, and then we just had to pick up the pieces and
survive. So it has been difficult. As you lose students you lose funding and as
you lose funding you lose resources. As you lose resources you lose the
technicians, tutors and secretaries.
As the number of staff decline as faculties downsize to meet their
budgetary constraints, additional administrative and teaching loads put
pressure on the remaining staff and limit their ability to undertake research.
Prospective teachers and researchers are also presented with an image of
high-workloads and an uncertain medium-term future.
In order for graduates in the agricultural sector to gain the necessary
skills to meet the changing needs of their professions, there needs to be
sufficient numbers of teachers and researchers to support them. Training an
agricultural researcher or teaching professional is extremely time intensive.
As explained by GPA:
The plant pathologist or entomologist or plant breeder does
not pick it up in six months and change in two years; these people hone their
skills over 30 or 40 years, you get the best value out of them after 20 years
and then you spend the next 10 years trying to train the next guy through so
that you don't step back.
Research in agriculture is important to ensure that Australia continues
to improve productivity, adapts effectively to changes in the natural
environment, and adequately manages risks such as pests and disease. This
section will explore issues in agricultural research with a focus on attracting
talent and ensuring that agriculture is well-placed to make the most of
Agricultural research is increasingly multidisciplinary and requires the
collaboration of chemists, physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians and
engineers among others.
Although individual institutions will develop their own models, the future of
agricultural research will be ensured through the development of greater ties
between institutions and academic disciplines. This will ensure not only
greater efficiencies in the use of infrastructure, but the spread of new ideas
Attracting Academic Talent
Chapter two highlighted the numerous skills shortages in the agriculture
and agribusiness sector. Agricultural research is another branch of the
profession that is at risk of suffering a shortage of appropriately qualified
personnel. It was reported to the committee by ACDA that the agricultural
research workforce is skewed towards older demographics with an estimated
50 per cent of researchers over 50 years of age. By one estimate, half of
all agricultural researchers will retire by 2018. It was reported to the
committee that there is an insufficient number of appropriately skilled
researchers being trained to replace the current generation of researchers. Over
the period of 1999–2010 only around 20 per cent of agriculture graduates were
in further study one year after graduation (compared to over 40 per cent for graduates
of the humanities).
La Trobe University pointed out that it had not had a single agriculture
graduate directly enrol in a PhD program in the last five years. Although
postgraduate courses in agriculture have been successful in attracting
international students, there is limited growth from local students.
A number of factors conspire to make a career in agricultural research
less appealing than it once was. It was reported to the committee that a
research employment pathway no longer provides the strong career path that it
Most researchers subsist on short-term contracts (around three years) and need
to frequently secure new funding to continue their research. As well as the
professional challenges posed by this uncertainty, it also means that
researchers often cannot access personal finance products like home loans that
require proof of ongoing employment.
The continued decline in government research and development funding does not
send an encouraging signal to students considering a research career.
Given the increasing number of post-graduate research students from overseas,
it was put to the committee that more thought needs to be given on how to
retain Australian-trained talent.
If, as currently suspected, most international post-graduate students return to
their home countries, they are contributing their education and talents to the
benefit of Australia's competitors. Encouraging those students to remain in
Australia is one possible way of increasing the research talent pool and
ensuring Australia maintains the research workforce it requires.
Climate change, corporatisation and technological innovation, among
other developments, require the agricultural industries to be adaptable. The
consequences of the skills shortage in trained researchers are felt across
industry. It was put to the committee that one of the greatest impacts of a
decline in agricultural researchers is in the ability of industry to adapt to
changes quickly and efficiently. A declining number of agriculture graduates
and education institutes has reduced the diversity of skills and knowledge at a
time when agriculture is rapidly diversifying its outputs and processes. At
least one major research body argued that there was a direct link between
decline in productivity growth and declining funding research. The limited number of
trained researchers also limits the ability of industry to undertake
A recurrent theme throughout the inquiry was the impact of the decline
of 'Extension' on agricultural practice. Extension refers to the practice of
researchers presenting their findings to businesses and operators currently
working in the field. Extension can include a variety of topics from new crop
varieties to pasture improvement, livestock management, plant and animal
disease control, sales and marketing.
The steady decline in funding for extension services was reported to the
committee as having an enduring impact on the effectiveness of research and
agricultural practices generally. With a limited extension network, research
findings take significantly more time to reach and influence industry practices
and provide productivity improvements.
The Birchip Cropping Group described the decline of extension as 'probably the
largest skill gap in our current situation and likely to get significantly
worse over the next 10 years.'
It is estimated that at the present time Cooperative Research Centres – a Commonwealth
Government initiative that supports end user driven research collaborations –
have around $100 million worth of research outcomes that have not been
distributed to industry due to a lack of dissemination services.
Echoing these sentiments, the University of Adelaide noted that: 'Extension of
research is a critical factor in adoption of new findings and withdrawal of
extension services has decreased the availability of independent advice.'
Due to the ever decreasing amount of extension work undertaken by state
Departments of Agriculture and Primary Industries, universities and other
research bodies, industry is increasingly turning to consultants to provide
advice on new practices and products.
It is estimated by the GRDC that around 60 per cent of grain growers in
Australia have a private consultant or advisor, and in most cases they will
have more than one as they seek very specialised expertise. It was argued that
this move towards private sector involvement can increase the rate of uptake of
new technologies and practices as they are advocated by trusted partners.
However, there are concerns that the decline of extension services is breaking
the link between researchers and practitioners, and making it harder for
smaller enterprises to compete.
The committee believes that extension services play a important role in
both improving productivity and also creating closer links between the farming industry
and researchers and should be encouraged.
The committee recommends that the Australian Bureau of
Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences undertakes an analysis of the decline
of Extension services and the impact of this on the dissemination of research
outcomes through productivity improvement to agriculture and agribusiness.
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