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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 4063

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:24): I present the final report of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee on higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator BACK: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I present to the Senate the second and final report of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee on its inquiry into higher education and skills training to support future demand in agriculture and agribusiness in Australia.

The committee's report was shaped around 69 submissions, three public hearings around the country and numerous other reports that the committee drew upon in reaching its recommendations.

The committee's report includes 11 recommendations that we commend to the Senate. They are, if acted upon by the government, certainly recommendations that would go a long way in addressing the key challenges facing the food and fibre sector at the present time. The committee's recommendations go to:

Equipping teachers to inform students about the opportunities in agriculture;

Improving the delivery of vocational education and training around Australia;

Breaking down the barriers within the higher education sector to improve knowledge sharing and research penetration;

Ensuring that the Australian education landscape continues to include tertiary agricultural institutions;

and, perhaps most importantly:

The formation of an overarching peak body with the authority from all areas of the food and fibre sector to speak on their behalf with government, with the community, and to holistically tackle problems facing the sector.

Agriculture has always been, and remains, in this country a key pillar of the economy. If one takes into account the number of Australians either directly or indirectly employed by agriculture or agribusiness, you are looking at around one in six jobs. Economically, this sector contributes more than three per cent of GDP to our economy, and a healthy food and fibre sector in Australia is key to ensuring our ongoing economic prosperity.

The committee repeatedly heard that there is a desperate need to attract and train more people to work in the agricultural and agribusiness fields. Research undertaken by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture has shown that there is a need to graduate some 4,000 university students per year to fill the vacancies, yet at the moment we are graduating only around 700. The skills shortage of course is not confined to university graduates; the committee received evidence indicating that in occupations from farmhands through to agronomists and researchers there are pervasive shortages.

In the past the agricultural and agribusiness sector was well serviced by a network of universities, registered training organisations and tertiary agricultural institutions. It is in relation to the latter that the greatest threat of extinction exists. These colleges provide the sector with graduates who are practically minded but armed with strong theoretical knowledge of the underpinnings of agricultural science and/or business. This combination of attributes and abilities was repeatedly commended to the committee as being what employers in the sector require.

Last September I rose in this place to lament the decline of the old pillars of agricultural learning excellence in this country, and it saddens me to report to the Senate that during the committee's inquiry agricultural first-year enrolments at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in New South Wales were suspended because of a lack of demand.

This seemingly ceaseless decline of agricultural education providers will not be reversed without serious consideration of the causes behind the decline of agricultural institutions specifically and agricultural enrolments generally.

The committee's report, which I commend to all senators, identifies key issues around student demand for agricultural courses, as well as solutions to address the problem.

Evidence received from the committee overwhelmingly showed that the level of agricultural literacy in our wider community, particularly the urban community, is very low. It is concerning that, in a recent survey, 10 per cent of university students at one of our most prestigious east coast universities thought that beef was a source of vegetable protein. If university students cannot tell the difference between the animal and the vegetable product, how can they be expected to know what career options might be available to them? The committee's report includes recommendations to work with teachers and students to address these deficiencies, starting at the primary school level, through secondary school and into tertiary education.

Many efforts have been expended to date in trying to address the concerns raised during the inquiry and to attract more people into agriculture and into agribusiness. However, this energy has been dispersed to date, rather than targeted, providing contradictory voices, and competing for attention at both government and senior levels as well as competing for limited funding.

Perhaps the key message to emerge from the committee's inquiry was that the traditional narrative of 'agricultural' has become associated not with innovation, excitement or opportunity but with hardship, isolation and monotonous, hard labour. Simply put, agriculture is not portrayed as an attractive option for students or career changers. Agriculture and agribusiness need a new narrative with which to reach out to prospective students and to the wider community with more attractive options.

The key recommendations of the report go to the critical matter of the need to form a new peak body to represent the agriculture and the agribusiness sectors as a whole. If we want to address the skills shortage in agriculture, if we want to improve agricultural literacy in the community, if we want to stop the decline in places of agricultural learning, if we want to ensure adequate, ongoing financing for the sector and particularly for agricultural research, there needs to be a peak body with the authority and resources to provide a united voice for the sector.

The benefits of having a single peak body at the table to represent everyone from the farmer to the financier, from the educator to the processor, are many, and I will briefly include at least three: firstly, a forum for those in the sector to thrash out their differences and to address joint concerns; secondly, a single point of high-level engagement for governments, state and federal, on key public policy matters such as foreign ownership, education and consumer concerns; and, finally and most critically, a strong voice advocating for agriculture and agribusiness, telling the positive stories of opportunity, excitement, and prosperity to students, to career changers and to the wider community.

In summary, the committee's view is that there is a critical need to ensure that Australia is properly placed to meet the demands of a growing population here and particularly in the Asian region and of changing consumer habits while continuing to significantly improve industry productivity. I have often made the statement in this place that we have the challenge of feeding 1.9 billion more people in the Asian region by 2050, and Australia must position itself to make that contribution. I have also made the observation that agricultural productivity improvement has declined radically in the last decade or more from some 2.7 per cent increase annually from the mid-seventies to the last decade to now less than one per cent of increased productivity per annum. The only way we can position ourselves to make that contribution is if the agriculture and the agribusiness sectors have access to enough skilled employees to expand, enough trained researchers to develop new practices, and enough professionals to drive innovation and productivity growth. These people will not miraculously appear; they need to be attracted to careers in our sector, and they need to be provided with the training and the skills that will enable them to forge successful and rewarding careers. To do that, we first need to ensure that the structures and the facilities are in place which are capable of training these people who are required by industry, and in turn, the best way to ensure that education and industry are on the same page is through the development of a high-level peak body where all sectors are represented around the table.

In presenting this report to the Senate I acknowledge the contribution of all those who took time to prepare submissions and to appear before the various hearings and those, of course, who made wider contributions. I conclude with my appreciation to the secretariat, who worked diligently and conscientiously to assist the committee in presenting its report and its recommendations. I commend the report to the Senate.