Trends in Australian Agricultural Education

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THEME ARTICLE

Australian agriculture has many features in common with the United States of America. For example, the progressive intensification of agriculture, increased specialization of enterprises, aggregation of small farms and the reduction in owner operators, and overall fewer people employed in the agriculture and related sectors are similar. This article may be useful to readers in examining the same issues located in a different setting.

A global decline in interest in studying agriculture appears to reflect perceptions that agriculture is of declining importance in first world nations and offers fewer opportunities to individuals compared to high technology and high personal income careers. These trends may be associated with a bias in university entry towards urban students who are increasingly separated from food production and are thus relatively uninformed about agriculture and aspects of natural resource management.

A three-year investigation into Australia tertiary education has quantified enrolment reductions as high as 40% in some years for agricultural diplomas in contrast to steady enrollment levels in other subject areas. This has been linked to the decline in the agricultural work force as well as a general image of agriculture. Vocationally oriented courses are more directly tied to employment opportunities and thus can be a problem in areas of the economy, which are in decline.

Demand Profile for Graduates of Agricultural Education

The demand profile for graduates of Australian agricultural education has changed significantly in recent years. In the past, the researcher was a person described as being a good scientist, the technical specialist had a subsector description, and the extension officer was described as being a generalist. The agricultural universities or faculties of agriculture supplied the personnel for each of these layers. This is increasingly not the case with the scientific advances being applied in genetics, microbiology, and chemistry. Pure scientists are complementing agricultural scientists in agricultural research.

In the extension field the required mix of skills has also changed. Increasingly, business and marketing professionals and social workers complement the traditional extension officers. The treatment of farming

as a business, the increasing sophistication of agribusiness, globalization and the rural urban demographic shift has resulted in a demand for skills of those trained outside of agriculture faculties. Environmental demands, such as natural resource management requirements, are also exerting pressures on agricultural education.

Those engaged in agricultural production for example, the owneroperators, are increasingly acquiring higher levels of knowledge than their previous counterparts. Similarly those supplying services through advice, sales, financial services, and general information in a changing agricultural environment too have higher levels of knowledge than their previous counterparts. At the same time, there is an increased responsibility to understand the implications of environmental impact and natural resource management, which require sound knowledge of the interrelationships of biological and social systems both in the present and longer term.

This leads to the debate about the disciplinary mix and the location within their discipline of those concerned with the teaching of agriculture. It is argued that those concerned with the teaching of agriculture should maintain close contact with the production aspects of their science. Professor Richard Bawden, Head of the School of Agriculture and Rural Development, University of Western Sydney, argues that whereas the earlier demand, from employers, was for graduates who could improve productivity, the demand now is for graduates who can manage rural practices which do not degrade biophysical or social cultural environments but enhance them. …