With parts of the developed world facing economic crises, the informal Australian tag-line of the ‘lucky country’ has never seemed more appropriate.
Indeed, being unable to meet the demands of Australia’s growing economy is, according to the Minister for Tertiary Education Chris Evans, “the best kind of challenge of all” for our country to be facing.
Finding people to fill the 500,000 new jobs forecast to be created by 2013, however, is not a new problem.
Universities have been struggling to make themselves attractive to school-leavers in a number of key industry areas, particularly agriculture, for quite some time.
In recent years, the supply of agriculture graduates from Australian universities has fallen well short of the market requirement.
A 2007 study by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture found that for the 2000 jobs available each year for agricultural science graduates, less than 800 degrees are being awarded. And that number is on the decline.
One of ACIAR’s Graduate Officer’s, Brendan Brown, reasons that failure of universities to accommodate for the changing experiences of Australia’s young adults is putting a strain on meeting the demands of the agricultural industry.
“More and more people are growing up in urban areas, they aren’t exposed to agriculture, food production or livestock,” he said.
“They aren’t able to recognise the opportunities in studying agricultural science, because they have no perception of what the industry entails.”
Brendan grew up on a hobby farm outside of Sydney; a small rural holding owned by his family.
The farm wasn’t operated for commercial success, but it sparked Brendan’s interest in agricultural practices, particularly cropping systems and soil sustainability.
After studying a Bachelor of Agricultural Science with Honours at the University of Sydney, Brendan is now coming to the end of his one-year placement with ACIAR, and muses that the major flaw of agricultural education in Australia is the failure to provide institutional linkages.
“Agricultural science wasn’t offered at my college,” he said.
“So for students who didn’t have a background in farming like I did, it wasn’t a logical progression. There isn’t much promotion of agricultural science degrees in the media, either.”
Throughout his degree also, Brendan found a lack of focus on integrating graduates into the workforce left him without a sense of professional direction; of where and how to get into the job market.
“I was lucky to get this position at ACIAR, because I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise, stay and do my PhD, probably,” he said.
“Because we didn’t get a lot of hands-on experience during the degree, a lot of us felt pretty disconnected from the industry.”
From Brendan’s experience, the key to increasing the number of agricultural science students at universities is focusing on extension activities both pre and post higher education; adopting a whole-of-system approach to college, university and industry.
Whether the responsibility of this falls upon universities, state governments, the community or students themselves, however, is another question altogether, but one, considering the present trends, Australia doesn’t have long to figure out.
Holly Reid, Communications Officer, ACIAR
How do you think agricultural science degrees could be made more attractive to school leavers? Post your comments below.