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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness
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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
McKenzie, Sen Bridget
Siewert, Sen Rachel
Gallacher, Sen Alex
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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
(Senate-Tuesday, 15 May 2012)
CHAIR (Senator Back)
- Senator McKENZIE
Content WindowEducation, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee - 15/05/2012 - Higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness
ROUSH, Professor Richard Tyrone, University of Melbourne; and Chair, Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture
CHAIR: Welcome. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?
Prof. Roush : The invitation was primarily to represent the University of Melbourne, but I am the immediate past president of the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture as well, having stepped down from that position just a month ago, and can also speak to speak to some updates on our submission from late last year.
CHAIR: Excellent. I invite you to make an opening address and we will then go to questions. Please take your time, and we would be most interested in any updates you might have in your capacity as immediate past president of the Council of Deans of Agriculture.
Prof. Roush : Sure. Referring to the terms of reference, the inquiry is into the adequacy of current education and training support to meet the needs of agriculture in Australia. I will come back to the terms as you define them, but I would like to submit that the needs are more than just agricultural education for the workforce, that a key area that we need to be thinking about into the future for Australia is also agricultural literacy among the general population. If we raise agricultural literacy in the general population, I suspect that we will get more students who want to take up agriculture upon leaving high school. In that regard, it is not just a lack of specialist schools or students that should alarm us most but the failure to integrate positive examples of agriculture into the broader curriculum of geography, history, math and science such that all young citizens understand the roles of agriculture and at least have some of their curiosity raised about agriculture as a career. I think this is an area where government can have a positive influence with relatively little cost. I will come back to that point later.
I come back to your specific terms of reference. There was a submission from the Council of Deans of Agriculture, and I believe that our secretary, Jim Pratley, has appeared before, so I will not go into this in a lot of detail, and he may have covered some of these points already, but, with respect to the adequacy of funding and priority given by governments to the federal, state and territory levels of agriculture, we remain convinced that no particular priority has been accorded to agriculture or agribusiness and related education by governments over a long period of time. At the time we made the submission, we commented on the fact that, if anything, there was a bias towards science, by virtue of the HECS. That problem has been solved because the government has now eliminated the HECS relief even for science, so we are right back where we were, but it is not really in the direction we had hoped to be—that we might actually come up and get a bit of benefit for students.
It has been widely recognised that agriculture is an expensive area to teach, and an update on that is the base funding review led by Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, which also recognised that agriculture was one of the more expensive areas to teach. Because the funding model is based on student numbers, it has meant that the contraction in size of agricultural schools and student numbers has also greatly restricted the capacity of universities to keep staff on to cover a wide range of teaching areas as well as research areas.
In terms of the reasons for and the impacts of the decline in agriculture and related educational faculties, we tend to think that a major part of the reason for the decline in interest among students has been the increasingly bad image of agriculture over time. I want to come back, toward the end of my opening remarks, to address that in more detail. Surely this is also reducing the capacity of universities to contribute to agricultural research.
In a country the size of Australia, with the scope of Australia, you cannot very well write off what a large collection of the best minds can bring to a problem. Universities have been and continue to be a major contributor. From our estimates, the universities expend about 25 per cent of the total research funds in Australia in agricultural research, which makes them quite competitive with other organisations. Indeed, if you do a survey from international publications and citation sources, any of the top three Australian universities in agriculture outperform CSIRO—not all of us collectively, or eight of us or 10 of us; just take the top three universities in any given category and they have higher scores than CSIRO does in terms of research output as measured by publications and citations. So universities have historically been major players in agricultural research, but at present that capability is at risk because of the decline in student numbers and consequent decline in income to universities.
I probably cannot add more on the economic impacts of labour shortages on Australia's exports than you have already heard from many other people. On the other hand, I want to talk a little bit more about animal welfare principles in agricultural education. Animal welfare is widely included in agricultural education already. It was included in our overall submission, but the University of Melbourne is a particular example. We teach subjects in 'animal welfare and ethics' and 'animals and society' through the bachelor of science degree and as breadth subjects in other degree programs, potentially exposing hundreds of students within the University of Melbourne to animal science. The University of Melbourne is the lead organisation in a consortium called the Animal Welfare Science Centre. We are actively researching these things and have quite a large number of PhD students. I know this is true when I talk with my colleagues at other schools or faculties of agriculture. This has been an issue that they are very much interested in and there is a lot of student interest in it as well. We do teach pretty actively in those areas.
Next I want to turn to the area of solutions to address the widening gap between skilled agricultural labour supply and demand. Since the ACDA made its submission, a report from the Allen Consulting Group has come out. I assume you have probably already seen this. Jim Pratley and I were involved in the steering committee for this report. It was based around the idea of looking at the kinds of interventions that might occur at secondary school to help encourage more students to go on to tertiary studies. For a lot of us it was a bit disappointing because Allen essentially went through and said, 'You know there is not a lot of evidence that any of the intervention strategies that have been tested to date work very well.' You could be very depressed by the answer or you could say, 'Well, we need to dig a bit deeper and find out what they are.' Anecdotally, what a lot of us think is that, when you look at people who have gone into agriculture, you see that at some point most of them would have had a positive experience and a productive and profitable farming enterprise when they were young through relatives, family members or whatever. In my own case, I never really expected to go into agriculture when I started university, but I had uncles on both sides of my families who had been involved in farming, so at least I knew something about and I started thinking about it in my second year at university.
My personal view is that we have to do a lot more to give high school students a chance to look at agriculture in places where people are being really productive and are industry leaders in the kinds of practices they use to help instil a more positive image about agriculture. The other thing, though—and we referred to it in our report—is that there are moves afoot to create an agribusiness council of Australia. The Allen Consulting Group report recommends an agricultural education council. Giving full credit to my colleagues at La Trobe University in Melbourne, when we had a Victorian inquiry into this they proposed an agriculture tertiary education council. I have to say that when I first read their proposal I was a bit sceptical; it was based on a similar example from the mining industry. But the more I have spoken about this with my colleagues at La Trobe and followed up on my own, I have become convinced it is quite a promising idea, because if you look at what has happened with the Minerals Tertiary Education Council you will see direct cash infusion from the mining industry for universities. It is really important to try to maintain the kinds of curricula they are interested in—things like geology and engineering—otherwise the student numbers would have been in decline. That actually circumvented some of the problems with low student numbers, and the success of the programs themselves tended to generate more student numbers in return. It helped keep the program going.
A number of us have been talking about this for a few months now: the problem we see in agriculture is in contrast to mining. It is a much more diffuse business community. This is a key area where we need to do more work. When you go out and talk to students about agriculture, students are naturally sceptical if a university boffin comes and talks about what a wonderful career this is going to be. At the end of the day, they really need to hear it from potential employers. That has been one of the things that has really been lacking in how we have tried to increase student numbers. We need to get more of the potential employers out talking up the future of the industry.
The other thing we have noticed lately—we occasionally watch television—is that the advertising around for the mining industry as a career path is quite striking. You do not see any reference in those to isolation, poor housing in the bush or anything like that. These are problems that, by any stretch of the imagination, would be far greater than we are faced with for agriculture, so why is it that we have failed to put a better foot forward for agriculture in the same way? I think we need to get a more unified program between agribusiness and secondary schools and tertiary universities to try to build the image of agriculture and recruit more students into it. Some people have said, 'You know, we have tried these things for a long time and haven't gotten anywhere,' when the strategies that were designed were probably not very effective before. We need to revisit them and think harder about how to move forward. The Allen Consulting Group report was really an advantage to us in doing that. We need to do more to promote science in secondary schools—and in the interests of full disclosure, my daughter is a student in an agricultural high school in Adelaide, Urrbrae Agricultural High School, which, if you have never been to, I would highly recommend that you go and take a look at it. They have got a strong relationship with industry. The school gets lots of donations of things and, frankly, they have some facilities there to teach students that I am jealous of but do not have access to. It has really been a marvel. It was my daughter's choice to go to do this. I did not encourage her, but it has been a real educational experience for me to see what the school is like and how it functions.
CHAIR: What is its name again?
Prof. Roush : Urrbrae Agricultural High School. It is right off the edge of the Waite campus. This experience has caused me to start looking more at what has been happening with agricultural high schools across Australia. There is no equivalent in Victoria, which is the reason my daughter is going to Urrbrae in Adelaide. There are no agricultural schools in Western Australia and New South Wales, and when I learned that the agriculture teachers of Australia were meeting at Flinders University in Adelaide on 8 January this year I volunteered to go and speak to them and it was a really good experience.
One of the things that really struck me about it, more so than I had realised up to that point, was that agricultural high schools provide a focal point for agriculture teachers in the rest of the state to unify around. It gives them a base of support, a base for curriculum development. It was something that I had not appreciated until I actually went to talk to the teachers and found that they seem to be much more organised and look to their agricultural high schools for leadership. It is something that we do not have in Victoria and it really struck me that there is a lot more that we can do about that.
But even then, it will still only capture a relatively small number of students, and the biggest challenge we have is still trying to raise the overall understanding of agriculture among students generally and increasing agricultural literacy across the country. This is a key time for that debate because currently the Australian Curriculum and Assessment and Reporting Authority, ACARA, is reviewing how to put together curriculum recommendations for the country, and a number of the people in these agricultural high schools and in the universities have been lobbying ACARA to treat agriculture on a higher plane and particularly to include it in the science curriculum, which they are declined to do.
Senator McKENZIE: I just seek clarification there, because we have just heard from ACARA this morning. Did you just say that they have declined to put agriculture in science?
Prof. Roush : They did not put it in the science curriculum. They have offered to put it in the technology curriculum. At least, that was the last word I heard from them.
CHAIR: Maybe as a result of their appearing this morning, they might review that decision.
Prof. Roush : Good. I am glad that they have appeared before you, because it has been a challenge for us. One of my colleagues, Ben Stockwin, who runs the Primary Industries Education Foundation, has proposed that at the very least they should consider including food and fibre production as one of the organising themes—so do you think they are going to go along with that?
Senator McKENZIE: That was the evidence given this morning—
Prof. Roush : That is great. I am glad that they have come around to that view, because we have been lobbying them about that for quite some time. ACARA plays the key role. Certainly the people I talk to in South Australia, for example, are concerned that ACARA will give short shrift to agriculture and it will be more difficult for them to campaign through their state school boards and so forth to make sure that agriculture is included.
I met with people representing ACARA recently. They have a list that includes things like geography and Aboriginal studies to be includes and, while not looking to diminish those, my faculty includes geography at the University of Melbourne and it seems to me that you can easily make a case that agriculture should be seen as equally important in terms of our understanding of Australia's history and future as some of its other areas. And with that, I will close.
Senator McKENZIE: Thank you, Professor Roush. I have got a few areas that I want to touch on. Firstly, I guess I will go to a comment you made about the HECS incentives that were in place for science more broadly and mathematics et cetera. Can you comment on what you think the impact will be on students taking up science and, more specifically, agricultural science?
Prof. Roush : It is interesting. The deans of agriculture had a representative from the department come to speak to us and we raised this with them late last year at our meeting in October, as we had previously. The response was that there was no evidence that these things actually increase enrolments. When the Treasurer made the announcement he used almost exactly the same language, which I thought was quite striking. For me the interesting thing is that nobody has actually tried to figure out what the counterfactual is. What would have happened to his enrolments if he did not have those HECS fees? I think what they have said is, 'We put the HECS fees in and there wasn't an increase.' The question in my mind is, 'What if he hadn't done that at all?'
Certainly in agriculture, although we desperately need to increase the enrolments of students from urban and suburban areas in agriculture, the demographics are all against us for the future. The fact remains that, for all of our universities, the great majority of students, disproportionate numbers of students, coming into agriculture are from rural and regional areas. Their costs for getting to university, such as housing and transport, are clearly higher than they are for urban students. You have only to talk to some of them to realise that there is a real burden. That usually means that some of them give up their places, defer their places or work long hours to support themselves. I think that not allowing some kind of HECS offset has a disproportionate effect on agriculture students, even compared to students from science.
Senator McKENZIE: That was one of my other questions. You run Dookie campus and you are asking people to go and live in a small country town. I grew up down the road at a place called Goorambat. What is your feedback from students around trying to find accommodation and those sorts of costs?
Prof. Roush : In general we find one of the things the students who come to Dookie in their third year of the Bachelor of Agriculture like about it is that it drops their costs, because the on-campus housing is quite inexpensive compared with anything they can get in Melbourne. Oftentimes, the opportunities for work are better for them in areas that they want to work in. Instead of working at a local hamburger place, pizza place or whatever, when they have time to go to work they can go and work for some of the local employers in Shepparton and so forth who are actively involved in agriculture. So going to Dookie is usually a step up for them in terms of finances.
Senator McKENZIE: I know the University of Melbourne has run the other campuses around Victoria other than Dookie campus. Can you comment on the University of Melbourne's resourcing and engagement with regional campuses and communities?
Prof. Roush : In addition to Dookie, we currently operate out of Creswick, which is forestry, and I think things are quite positive. Just before I arrived, in December 2006, the University had been trying to manage campuses in several other places and it just was not financially viable. There just were not enough students coming through. The decision was made, which I strongly support, to consolidate around Dookie, which in many ways is the most useful one in terms of the diversity of farming enterprises available. It is an ideal place for trying to drive change around the Murray-Darling Basin because it sits on the Broken River tributary.
The university has been quite supportive. It took me a bit of time to bring people up to speed on what the opportunities were, but it has been very supportive of Dookie. The university has recently put up $2½ million to match $2½ million from the state government for us to do the first set of upgrades to Dookie campus. The support I have had for administration for Dookie and Creswick has been quite good.
Senator McKENZIE: Is a dairy program offered at Dookie?
Prof. Roush : Yes. We have not had too many students take it but we have had a longstanding relationship with GOTAFE, where they also do part of the National Dairy Education Program on the Dookie campus. Part of that upgrade includes putting $2 million into the dairy to tear down the existing dairy and rebuilding it to a much more modern standard so that we can help to improve its capability to teach.
Senator McKENZIE: One of the things we have been talking about, particularly with ACARA, is the content knowledge and passion of secondary and primary school teachers around agriculture, something you also alluded to in your opening statement. How does your faculty at University of Melbourne engage with the education faculty at the University of Melbourne to have those conversations with future teachers?
Prof. Roush : 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. We have been trying to figure out just how to come to grips with it, and it is part of why I tried to engage with the agricultural teachers at this meeting at Flinders. When we had the plenary session I asked the teachers as a group, 'What is it that you really want most from universities to help support you?' Their proposal was to try to better link agriculture and education faculties for teacher training. Their proposal was to try to recruit among the people who come into the education faculty. On thinking about it, we thought it was better the other way around to start with people who were really strong in agriculture and encourage them to take a course and at least get a diploma in education. The point that the agriculture teachers made to us was that, especially in relatively small schools, somebody who has been trained in agriculture can teach science and several other things but it does not work the other way. So somebody who is a good science teacher cannot necessarily teach agriculture. Those are all very important messages, ones that we are trying to react to.
Senator McKENZIE: Which sort of goes to the point of getting the teaching undergrads rather than the agriculture undergrads and turning them on.
Prof. Roush : We could do that but the problem is turning them on is one thing but they will not necessarily have the skill base. We are talking about having somebody who has taken three or four years of undergraduate education really come to grips with science and agriculture, so how do we give them that kind of depth? I am beginning to think it might work better the other way around, for us to talk up teaching as a profession for more of our agriculture students. But we will try to go both ways. Among the group of agriculture teachers who were there most of them had come through science or agriculture backgrounds and had secondarily done diplomas in education. I think that might be the more efficient way of doing it, in the sense—and I do not want to run down education—that it probably takes less time to bring someone up to speed with teaching skills than it does to bring them up to speed with science and agriculture skills.
Senator McKENZIE: Yes, maybe. Finally, I wanted to go to industry engagement and, additionally, postgraduate studies. From your experience in your faculty, who is doing the research? Are we drawing from overseas? What percentage of your undergrads go on to further study?
Prof. Roush : Probably about 20 or 30 per cent of the undergraduates from our faculty go on to further study, leading to PhDs. Among the postgraduate pool we have now, it is probably about 30 or 35 per cent being overseas students and the rest domestic.
Senator McKENZIE: In terms of industry engagement from your own perspective, what sort of industry engagement do you as a faculty have?
Prof. Roush : Quite a lot, so I think we have quite a lot but we are still being hampered by all the other things that we have to do to find the time to really develop this fully.
Senator McKENZIE: Aside from going to Dookie, what else do your students have?
Prof. Roush : One of the things that we are lagging behind on, and we need to try to make an appointment in the faculty to really look after this, is if we get a large number of opportunities from people in industry for internships for students. What we really need is a staff person who can link the students up with the internship opportunity and also make sure that the internship is managed well so it is a good educational experience and not just a source of cheap labour for the person who is offering the internship. So we really need to have somebody to work on that. Because of low student numbers our budgets are hampered and we have not been able to make an appointment like that, but it is one of the next targets for us to make an appointment to have a dedicated person who will manage internships and will also link closely to managing students to link them up with employment opportunities afterwards. Our interactions are good. We have close working relationships with the big end of town—Incitec, Pivot and Nufarm—as well as with lots of small companies like IK Caldwell in Shepparton, which has had a long-standing interaction with Dookie. When I talk to them I find something of the order of 30 or 40 per cent of their employees are Dookie graduates, so we span the gamut of looking at employers.
Senator McKENZIE: That is fantastic.
Senator SIEWERT: I want to go back firstly to this issue of teachers, because it is exercising my mind quite a bit. As we were talking to ACARA this morning, I became very aware of this: we are only going to make this new curriculum work for agriculture if we have people who love agriculture or know something about it to inject it into their curriculum under the various opportunities, because we are talking about geography, science, technology et cetera. You were having a discussion earlier with Senator McKenzie about where we take agriculture graduates, so I have got a couple of questions here. Firstly it is that we are not going to have enough agriculture graduates to cover all the schools. Secondly, given that we do not have enough agriculture graduates to meet the opportunities in this industry sector now, do we want to funnel students off that way? My proposition is, no, we do not because we desperately need them in the sector. But we do want to engage the broader teachers with agriculture. I was having this discussion this morning with a representative from ACARA. You need teachers with a passionate understanding for agriculture because that is how you are going to engage city students because city kids do not have interaction with agriculture anymore. If they do not have a rural background and most of them are disconnected. We all know that. Would it not be better to grab other teachers and give them more intensive agriculture, to build on their knowledge so that they get the ideas of why it is important to do food and fibre, to use this example in the geography lessons or whatever?
Prof. Roush : That is right. I think at the level of what I would call agricultural literacy, getting agricultural examples incorporated into the total curriculum, we do have to work with the existing pool of teachers. Yes, we need to interact with them to bring them up to speed about why these are exciting things and why they make useful examples and so forth. I guess I was thinking about getting back to teachers teaching at least one subject in agriculture and for those we would need people who can—
Senator SIEWERT: I totally agree.
Prof. Roush : I take your point.
Senator SIEWERT: Yes, you need the demand.
Prof. Roush : This problem has been developing for a couple of decades. We are not going to turn it around immediately. When I look at the students who a year 9 and year 10 right now, those are the ones who 10 years from now we will want to be involved much more in agriculture and in agricultural teaching. I take your point that for the broader integration of agriculture, as examples rather than individual subjects in schools, we need to raise the interest and enthusiasm among people are going through teaching programs now. And that is a very useful thing we could take a stab at the University of Melbourne, where increasingly it is a postgraduate program in education.
Senator SIEWERT: That goes to my next question. Is there a move them to do that through your group of the deans of agriculture to integrate better with the teaching programs?
Prof. Roush : That is why I reported back to our March meeting and even having stepped down as president I have put my hand up to try to be that side of things for the ACDA.
Senator SIEWERT: You were saying you need a uniform approach across Australia for the advertising for ag students, as we have in—
Prof. Roush : We need a unified approach between industry and universities to build enthusiasm about agriculture as a career path.
Senator SIEWERT: I have been banging on about it, but you just do not see it. When I went through school, it was presented as an option. When my son had career counselling he was saying, 'What am I going to do?' only four years ago that was not presented as an option.
Prof. Roush : No. Especially since we have tried to recruit since Dookie over the years we have had a lot of experience in both urban and rural regional schools. The common refrain you hear, if a student has done really well, is advice from a teacher or a high school guidance counsellor, 'Don't waste that ATAR going into agriculture. Try to get into law or medicine.' The irony of that is that it is a misperception of where agriculture is going. We need those students. If you talk about managing animal welfare correctly or looking at how to conserve water in agriculture, the skill level required for those things is quite high. One of the things we are trying to give back to people is to say, 'No, we need those students, and there is a big challenge for them out there.'
Senator SIEWERT: We need hydrologists, for example, when talking about managing water. We need high-level people who understand. Certainly in WA—I presume it is the same here—hydrology is critical for managing salinity and things like that.
Prof. Roush : We had a vision for Dookie, which we have developed as a Dookie prospectus. I would be happy to share with people—I did not think to bring them this morning but I am happy to email you the PDF and you can share it around. We spent four or five years thinking about how we can best use Dookie. When I got into this job I thought that if you could do some brainstorming on where the big challenges are in agriculture, what would you need to research it. You would need a mix of farming enterprises, maybe in the Murray-Darling since it is so important. I thought, 'That's what Dookie is.' Now the challenge is how to bring it up to being really useful. My closest colleague working on this is the Dean of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, Professor Iven Mareels, who holds half dozen of the patents that were used for improving control systems in irrigation and so forth. Quite independently, but concurrently, part of the idea we had for Dookie was to put in really great stuff—high tech, cutting edge things. We would use the existing housing at Dookie, where we can still house a couple hundred students at a time if we want to, and recruit students from year 9, year 10 and high school to give them an experience of what the future of agriculture actually looks like.
Senator SIEWERT: Are you members of PICSE?
Prof. Roush : No, we are not members of PICSE, but we are flirting with it. Again, my daughter did PICSE this year, so I have had some firsthand experience of PICSE and I know David Russell well. The problem for a lot of us is that we are trying to evaluate the value proposition of PICSE in that it is somewhat expensive for the total number of students it is processing. I have a continuing discussion with David Russell about the cost effectiveness and what kinds of things can be done to fine-tune the program.
Senator SIEWERT: Senator McKenzie, you have also had experience with PICSE too, haven't you? Senator Back, you spoke to the same class at the end of last year, didn't you? They were amazing.
Prof. Roush : They were.
Senator SIEWERT: We had this group of highly engaged, very bright students. I thought, if we get them all through something to do with agriculture, we are making a good start for this new generation.
Prof. Roush : The concern we have is whether PICSE brings in new students. For example, when my daughter joined there were about nine students from her cohort at Urrbrae. They had an evening presentation on the last night and I went to it at Riverland to see what it was like. Nine of the 16 students were from Urrbrae, and all those students almost by definition were already interested in agriculture before they were grabbed for the program. So the issue we have is: does it reinforce students who are going already or has it branched out to bring in new students? I am not trying to indict PICSE—I think it is a really good idea. Some of the ongoing discussion we have with David Russell is about what the numbers really are, how we can improve them and how we are going to drive it further.
CHAIR: In the Western Australian context this January it was one out of 34 who had set their sights on agriculture—it was a young fellow from Cunderdin. The others clearly had not contemplated anything at all associated with agriculture.
Prof. Roush : But PICSE brought them around?
Prof. Roush : That is good news.
CHAIR: I am not saying the other 33 were moving that way.
Senator SIEWERT: Yes. I was very impressed with their engagement.
Senator GALLACHER: Are there any sectors like, say, viticulture that have no problem attracting interest? Winemaking is obviously a more—
Prof. Roush : That is probably true. If anything, the number of winemakers in Australia is a bit oversupplied because we now have an oversupply of wine, and there is consolidation of the industries, so you need fewer winemakers. So there are some areas like winemaking that are pretty well serviced. Support areas in viticulture seem pretty well serviced as well.
Senator GALLACHER: Are there any lessons there that can be transported to other sectors of agriculture?
Prof. Roush : Yes. It has the cachet of being fashionable. There are a lot of high-tech aspects to it. There are high exports and so forth. Part of the growth in winemaking has been all those things. There is certainly a message we need to get across about other areas of agriculture.
Senator GALLACHER: Lots of students drink it.
Prof. Roush : That is right. Lots of students drink milk too, but we still have to work on it more.
Senator GALLACHER: Only when they can afford it, but they drink all the time, I think. Is this loss of students in agriculture a result of aggregation of farm size, loss of population, drought or viability? As farms are tending to get much bigger, there are fewer families in the country and obviously there are fewer children in the country and there is less interest in agricultural pursuits.
Prof. Roush : I think it has more to do with bad press about things like drought because over half the jobs in agriculture and not on-farm jobs.
Senator GALLACHER: Where are the students from, though? I have heard all morning that students who have a connection with farming—an uncle, like yourself—will tend to gravitate towards agriculture.
Prof. Roush : That is where a lot of them come from, but about half of the jobs in agriculture are not on farm. There is an element of that, so having some kind of exposure would be really good. That is part of what drives it. Again, even when Allen Consulting worked on this they discovered that there were far more previous reports on this than they thought, but some of the key questions still escape being answered. What is the relevant importance of these factors?
My hunch is that it is much more that nine out of every 10 stories you see about agricultural news in the media is a bad news story. It is a bad image. Wine has escaped that to some extent because, until recently, it was seen as a booming industry with a strong cachet around it. I think it is more about the overall image of agriculture as being hard times, low skilled and low-paying jobs and so forth. I think that is what we have to get around.
Senator GALLACHER: I think you mentioned in your submission that a number of universities have 25 per cent in research, which is an output that is higher than the CSIRO. How is that funded? Do you get donations for that?
Prof. Roush : We do get a few donations, but the primary funding routes for university research are in grants from organisations like the research and development corporations—for instance, the Grains Research and Development Corporation is a strong one. To the extent that they make any kind of a surplus through teaching, universities pretty much reinvest that back into research. In our faculty, probably 70 or 80 per cent of the funding will come from external sources, from grants, five per cent might come from donations and the rest will be cobbled one way or another from our teaching income.
Senator GALLACHER: So there is no possibility of getting more money in to attract more graduates to agriculture?
Prof. Roush : I am sure that if we had more money we could do more to attract more graduates.
CHAIR: Thank you, Professor Roush. We share a history of both having been on the faculty of the University of California, Davis.
Prof. Roush : Absolutely! Great.
CHAIR: So that is excellent. You made the point about agriculture and its image. It has caused me to wonder through the course of this enquiry whether, because the wider community do not seem to relate to it, have much understanding of it or sympathy for it, we should be referring more to food and fibre rather than agriculture. Is that something that an urban community and children are more likely to respond to?
Prof. Roush : I think so. Certainly when the deans of agriculture put together the website 'Career Harvest', which I am sure you will have run across by now, we ran through lists of names. I did a bit of market testing on everybody I ran into about various name options and we came back to 'Career Harvest' because we had decided to avoid using the word agriculture. I think 'food and fibre' is probably a step up as well.
CHAIR: Yes. They relate positively, whereas agriculture seems to—
Prof. Roush : Yes. It is sad and unfortunate, but the feedback we get back from formal and informal focus groups and the like is, 'Don't use "agriculture".'
CHAIR: It seems 'food and fibre' of itself encompasses the production and the supply chain through to the consumer, whereas we keep talking about agriculture and then we rush in to talk about agribusiness.
Prof. Roush : That is right. I think that 'food and food security' play well. I am not sure that most students would initially understand the fibre reference.
CHAIR: No. 'Food security', increasingly, I think. Senator Siewert was asking an earlier question on that.
Prof. Roush : 'Food security' seems to be good at grabbing their attention.
CHAIR: You were talking earlier about students needing to hear from potential employers and you are right, the secondary students need to hear from potential employers. My own experience at Muresk years ago was that we were very big on the faculty, current students and recent graduates talking to secondary students. If there was one reason why Muresk went down, and Curtin University's interest in it, it was because that factor fell out.
Prof. Roush : I agree.
CHAIR: Do you see that? In speaking to your own students do you sense that they are out there selling their own courses and their own experience?
Prof. Roush : Some of them certainly are. Some of our students are members of the VFF and other such organisations. The new degree system at the University of Melbourne is sometimes called the 'Melbourne model'. Basically, we have some undergraduate students going through the Bachelor of Agriculture but most would be taking our majors in the Bachelor of Science, which is huge. One of the things that we have looked on as a real advantage from that new system is that we can go and talk to students who may never have heard of agriculture or who have had a bad impression of agriculture. Now that they have come to a science degree, we are getting in front of them and pitching some idea of the problems and challenges in agriculture. In particular, one of the things we have done really well is to establish a subject called 'Food for a Healthy Planet', which this semester has an enrolment of about 380 students. I gave two lectures last week and I am giving one tomorrow. So it is a fantastic enrolment and students are coming from a wide range of backgrounds such as agriculture, arts—you name it. It has been a really great opportunity for us to pitch some of those ideas to people and get their attention.
CHAIR: That is an interesting point: 380 students because of the name.
Prof. Roush : Once we get them—
CHAIR: You can channel them?
Prof. Roush : Yes. That is where we are trying to set them up with peers and give them a chance to meet people who are a couple of years ahead of them in our education stream to talk about their experiences and to help them out.
CHAIR: The current issue of one of the ag newspapers in Western Australia has a long feature on agricultural education, with interviews with lot of current students and recent graduates. It is coming back to that same point as to whether or not they are out there selling. In light of modern communications and IT, are the silos still there between the universities? If somebody in South Australia knows of a good course in Melbourne, can they plug in, pay a fee, do a subject and get academic credit? Would you allow it?
Prof. Roush : Yes.
CHAIR: Have we broken down those silos?
Prof. Roush : Absolutely.
CHAIR: Can we break them down more?
Prof. Roush : Sure. We are very interested in working in those kinds of relationships with other universities. As a result of a meeting of deans of agriculture five years ago in Adelaide on agricultural education, we have been able to develop much closer working relationships among all the universities. Everybody is willing to figure out ways of pairing things up. Disciplines are shrinking away because no one university has enough—things like my area of training in entomology, nematology, plant pathology or agronomy—in any number of areas that are otherwise getting pretty small. The only way we are really going to be able to keep the disciplines going is by sharing. Increasingly we are going to short-term intensive courses so that it makes it easier for the students to move around, do things on the internet or whatever and then spend a week in intensive at a common institution.
CHAIR: I think that is what the taxpayer wants to hear.
Prof. Roush : It is only a matter of time and money to get the things organised. There are no institutional or attitudinal barriers to it.
Senator SIEWERT: I appreciate the point that we are trying to get new students in, but we are also losing students from regional areas as well, are we not? We are not getting kids going back onto the farms. In Western Australia we are getting other people looking at it, and I totally agree that we need to get urban students in. If we can retain some of the rural students in agriculture, we will be doing better than we are at the moment. Kids are moving out. They are not seeing agriculture as the future. There is a bit of a sense of hopelessness, even amongst rural kids, that the future is not there.
Prof. Roush : It is definitely an issue that we are working on. I have been trying to establish a partnership with Goulburn Ovens TAFE and Wodonga TAFE. We got some funding from the state government through the Regional Partnerships Facilitation Fund: $1.95 million. The initiative is to try to work with the two TAFEs to essentially put on the first year of a university entrance into a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Agriculture, Bachelor of Environment. That is our test case—whereas other people move on to arts and other things. The idea is to help encourage students—mature age students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and so forth—to make it easier for them to do the first year of university while still in a rural area. Part of my hidden agenda—and not so hidden agenda—is that you increase their time and maintain their links in that area. In terms of specialist training, it will still probably be necessary to come to a central university for a couple of years, but we are trying to minimise that time as much as possible.
Senator SIEWERT: A committee that I am chairing is conducting an inquiry into rural health. A number of campuses are looking at training medical experts in the bush, and then they are more likely to stay in the bush. So I am pleased to hear you saying that you are trying to do the first year. We talked about this when we had our hearing in Perth: training people in the bush actually helps them maintain those connections—or gets them out into the bush.
Prof. Roush : The only problem with that is, in terms of cost structure, it is very difficult to deliver the training in the bush. We still need to have some kind of hybrid model where, from time to time, they will go to a centralised place, because there are just too few students to really manage it. That is the problem we had. We were trying to run campuses at Glenormiston and so forth. It has to be a mixed model. You have to come together at some place in order to get the specialist subjects, otherwise there are not enough students to make the class size cost effective.
Senator SIEWERT: I have run out of my question time. I think Senator McKenzie wants one.
CHAIR: Thank you, very much, for your evidence to the committee today, Professor Roush. I am sure that if Senator McKenzie has any other questions she will put them on notice.
Prof. Roush : Thank you. I feel reinvigorated about going back to talk to the education faculty and to look more at how our students are interacting with their peers in the bush to recruit students.
Senator McKENZIE: I will flag that one of those questions on notice might be about whether this is an international problem.
Prof. Roush : Yes.
Senator McKENZIE: Don't answer it now—
Senator SIEWERT: Because we will get in trouble.
CHAIR: You will. Thank you, very much.
Prof. Roush : You know how to get hold of with me, obviously.