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(Edited extract from speech by Professor Alan Robson, Vice-Chancellor, delivered at:
The UWA Institute of Agriculture 2010 Industry Forum, 16 July 2010)
The challenges facing agriculture and food production in Australia and internationally are great. Demand for food is projected to double over the next 50 years from less land base. As such, productivity must be increased. This needs to occur in the context of climate change, increasing world population and a finite global water and fossil energy supply
The agricultural industry in Australia requires the best minds and a highly trained workforce if these economic, social and environmental challenges are to be met and the opportunities grasped.
The Productivity Commission report of 2005 indicates that agriculture lags behind the community as whole and other segments of the economy, in respect of education. Just seven per cent of the agricultural workforce has a degree compared with the Australian average of 22 per cent.
As one of only two Australian university vice-chancellors with an agricultural background, I am well aware of the problem facing the agricultural industry in dealing with the challenge of feeding a growing world population.
This is exacerbated by the fact that agriculture needs the best minds and a highly trained workforce, yet only seven per cent of the agricultural workforce has a university degree, compared with 22 per cent for the rest of society.
In the United States it is quite normal for farmers to have a university degree whereas in Australia it is unusual, a state that is not helped by the "Dad and Dave" image Australian farmers suffer in the general media.
Agricultural education is facing two challenges, firstly in trying to attract a largely urban population into the faculty and secondly the progressive "dumbing down" of high school subjects, especially maths.
We have started a bridging course in maths and it is an initiative that will have to be expanded in the future, as research has shown that Australia needs 5,000 graduates a year to service the agrifood industries, but it produces just 700 graduates a year.
To tackle these problems, the university has decided on some major changes that will take place in 2012 with the degree courses reverting to three years with honours in the fourth year. Double degrees will cease, more bridging courses will be offered and all undergraduates will be expected to study some units that are not directly relevant to their chosen course.
As educators, we must produce graduates who not only have scientific, management and communication skills, but who also understand commercial realities, economics, politics and a raft of environmental realities.
Mathematical and computational skills are becoming increasingly important where meaningful integration relies upon mathematical modelling. It is therefore for us to highlight in a positive and understandable way how agricultural science and technology is keeping us at the forefront of world innovation and discovery.
The University of Western Australia strongly contributes to the international investigation of climate change, from monitoring sheep methane output to decreasing the amount of nitrous oxide in the soil.
Our Institute of Agriculture was the only institution in Australia to receive funding in December last year from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry as part of the Climate Change Research Program for research into all three greenhouse gas areas - methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
UWA researchers are also working with an international team in a bid to create a new wheat hybrid suited to waterlogged and saline conditions by identifying genes similar to those responsible for the ability of rice to survive in watery conditions.
But to address the ongoing challenge of declining interest in agricultural education, there are several levels where action is required:
- At the Commonwealth and State level, there is a need for assistance for structural reform and for students to travel and study at locations remote from their home and State.
- At the institutional level, there is a need for greater co-operation among institutions.
- There is a need for intensive courses taught in specialist areas by visiting lecturers.
- There is a need for increasing awareness among secondary schools students of the exciting opportunities in a sunrise industry and to dispel the view of agriculture as a sunset industry.
- There is a need for scholarships and cadetships to encourage the best students to study agriculture.
- We also need to implement bridging courses to meet shortfalls in the mathematical and chemical skills of prospective students.
- And in relation to research, we need to support concentration and collaboration with other agencies. For higher degree research, we need additional funding to enable concentration, travel for students, and research infrastructure.
There is now a realisation that agriculture is one of the most complex of professions, requiring a breadth and depth of knowledge similar to that of medicine and veterinary science. To be a competent agriculturalist requires not only knowledge of plant and animal biology but also soil physics and chemistry, environmental science and management, agricultural business and marketing, computer and other technologies.In summary, we need agriculture education to cover the entire spectrum from paddock to plate - encompassing productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability.
Modern agricultural education should provide an important pathway for capacity building for the agriculture and food sectors through the training of new professionals and managers for this exciting industry.
Janine MacDonald UWA Public Affairs (+61 8)6488 5563 / (+61 4) 32 637 716
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