With a focus on software and hardware systems, crop and produce management, integrated pest management, and fertigation systems, Western Sydney University joined forces with Hort Innovation and five industry partners to establish the Masterclass in Protected Cropping course last year.
Offering a range of graded qualifications culminating in a Graduate Diploma (Protected Cropping), these courses stem from a partnership under the Hort Frontiers Leadership Fund and include a combination of flexible online learning modules and intensive on-site workshops.
The Emerging Leaders in Protected Cropping program is well-underway at Western Sydney University's (WSU) Hawkesbury campus, with students participating in on-site workshops during the summer of 2020 and in April this year.
The workshops are part of the science and production-based units undertaken during the course.
Practical activities were conducted in the laboratory as well as in the National Vegetable Protected Cropping Centre, which is a state-of-the-art vegetable glasshouse production research facility located on the Hawkesbury campus.
Students also had to participate in discussion groups and present information on a particular topic or aspect of the unit.
Each workshop was held over two and a half days and are part of a blended learning program consisting of online lectures, tutorials and essential readings.
During the lectures, students heard from a range of WSU experts and industry members such as Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) Chair Nicky Mann and PCA deputy Chair Tony Bundock; Elio Jovicich from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland; Dion Potter from Syngenta; and Sun City Produce managing director Bao Duy Nguyen.
Other units to be undertaken throughout the Graduate Diploma (Protected Cropping) course include business and work integrated learning.
The former comes from WSU's School of Business, to help growers understand those business components that they may not be familiar with.
Work integrated learning involves students working within their own horticultural business or employer, or being matched with an industry business to provide hands-on problem solving.
Their topic can be built around a research project, management questioning or marketing and branding.
The protected cropping industry in Australia has been growing quite rapidly, at an average of around four to five per cent each year, which has resulted in skills shortages.
WSU senior horticultural education officer David Randall explained that the main aim of this course is to provide a qualification that's never been offered before, and to provide the industry with locally trained, innovative experts in this field.
"Because that's what we don't have enough of in Australia," David said.
"Many growers are using overseas consultants.
"They're paying a lot of money for people who don't understand our climate, our resource structures, and our pest and diseases. We really need local experts."
It was the horticulture industry itself that identified these gaps.
"This whole avenue of career development has been put forward by the university because the industry has been telling us for years that they need trained and qualified people," David said.
"It has to have a framework that can recognise people's expertise.
"This course has been born from industry engagement, and we have a reference panel of industry members that has helped us to develop these units and guide everything, from the topics that we cover to the assessment tasks.
This course has been born from industry engagement, and we have a reference panel of industry members that has helped us to develop these units.- David Randall, WSU senior horticultural education officer
"We're responding to the industry's call-out."
Growers and industry members interested in upskilling or gaining leadership skills are invited to enrol in the Emerging Leaders in Protected Cropping program, while employers are urged to support any prospective students.
"Feedback we've gotten is that the hours and the cost is quite substantial for an individual, and it's really beneficial to your employer for you to have that qualification and that extra training," David said.
"It takes the burden off the employer to have to train staff and, with employer support, the current crop of students are doing very well - and the overall feedback has been positive."
- This article was produced by AUSVEG