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AGRICULTURE degrees should focus less on maths and statistics – and more on technology and engineering - if universities are going to equip graduates for the future.
And while he says tertiary ag enrollments are showing signs of revival, Professor Alex McBratney also believes courses must accredit ag graduates in the same way the medical fields do – or we’ll risk seeing agricultural education disappear from universities altogether.
Ag education was the focus of this week’s NSW Farm Writers forum in Sydney, with Professor McBratney, Director of the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Sydney, joined by Primary Industries Education Foundation chief executive Ben Stockwin on the two-man panel.
Nuffield’s Jodie Dean was a special guest moderator.
Mr Stockwin said it was crucial to keep kids grounded on where our food and fibre comes from in order to counteract what he called the “Four Corners effect” on agriculture’s image.
He said the industry itself also had a lot to learn when responding to media scrutiny and making its case to the wider community – especially on contentious social licence issues such as live export.
“I wouldn’t particularly say there’s a bias within the media, but I think (the reaction to negative farming coverage) is representative of a lack of community understanding,” Mr Stockwin said.
He said some reports that opened the industry up to criticism seemed to get greater traction because general ag knowledge was low.
“There is not a strong industry response to counteract some of these messages,” he said.
The agriculture knowledge gap has birthed a few entertaining headlines over the past few years.
Surveys from 2012 suggested 75 per cent of Aussie kids in year six thought cotton socks were an animal product, while one in four believed yoghurt was from a plant.
Last year it was revealed 7 per cent of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
Mr Stockwin said it was not his Foundation’s primary goal to ensure year 12 student puts their hand up for a degree in agricultural science.
Rather: “That students leaving year 12 know where their food and fibre comes from, and that Australia produces a world-class product,” he said.
Lack of accreditation ‘the biggest problem’
Professor McBratney said while more universities were teaching agriculture than ever in the past, the gap between graduates, and jobs that need filling, continues to grow.
He also said future ag curricular needed to become multi-disciplinary, with “more technology and engineering”.
The biggest problem he said, however, was a lack of accreditation in agriculture.
“We were in the curriculum wars last year and we didn’t do very well,” Professor McBratney said.
“Because unlike nursing or dentistry, or pharmacy, agriculture is not an accredited profession.
“Unless we can get accreditation of agriculture, I would suggest we would not have agricultural education in many tertiary institutions in the future.”
“We need to figure out how we accredit agriculturalists, have a peak body to recognise that. That gets you, in a tertiary situation, a real curriculum with an accredited umber of hours that you need.”
“Do we want as a society to recognise agriculturalists as a profession? Because if we don’t, we will lose sustainable agriculture. And the ag we have in this country has to be high tech, it has to be cutting edge.
“To do that we’re going to need graduates, and more and more graduates.
“We need graduates who have sufficient training in agriculture - that doesn’t mean people who have studied other things can’t come in to the sector and do amazing work.
“We do need a baseload there. People who have the knowledge already there.”