The agricultural education sector is struggling with an identity crisis and is failing to attract enough students, the Tertiary Education Commission says.
Chief executive Tim Fowler told MPs on the education and workforce select committee that education in the agricultural space was unappealing to students.
“I have to say, one of the problems we do have in the agricultural space is it’s almost a branding issue. Primary industries, agriculture is not well liked by the young folks these days.
“Whether it needs to be called something completely different like land and ecosystem or something I don’t know, but we’ve got a job of work there because we desperately need people to go into this particular sector.”
The commission spent $108 million a year in the area out of a budget of $3.3 billion, something Fowler described as a major problem considering how important the industry was to New Zealand.
Improving the information and advice available to high school students about the opportunities available to them and potential salaries would help, he said.
“I keep saying if I could spend $200 [to] 300 million on agriculture I would but we need to do something about the demand side of that.”
Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Newsroom more people needed to be attracted into the field and he was not convinced the training and education being offered matched what the industry needed.
The sector was also fragmented, with different providers offering different courses, and work needed to be done to draw that together.
He also admitted that the financial problems at main agricultural hub Lincoln University could have turned prospective students off.
“I think that may have done some reputational damage around the industry and that’s something that we’re looking at.”
Enrolments following fee-frees announcement ‘up and down’
The Government’s decision to make the first year of tertiary education free was launched with much fanfare, but Fowler said it was too early to say what impact it would have on student numbers.
Term one enrolment data would not be available until April, but he said there was anecdotal evidence that numbers had both risen and fallen in different areas.
A website set up with information about the fees-free policy had been immensely popular, with 332,000 unique users, and 23,000 of those had generated statutory declarations which were part of the eligibility process.
The overarching picture since 2013 had been of declining tertiary enrolments, due to the strong economy and low unemployment.
National MP Paul Goldsmith quizzed Fowler about suggestions students would enrol in courses they were not prepared for and simply “take a punt” because they were free.
Fowler replied that it shouldn’t be the case considering career advice all first-year students were provided with, although he admitted the policy had been introduced in a tight time-frame and issues could arise.
“I think you’re right, this has been done quickly, there’s no two ways about that and the Government acknowledges that.
"I’m very comfortable that the Government’s arrangement we’ve got over the top of it makes sure that these issues around monitoring and looking for unintended consequences are absolutely front and centre of our attention and when we find them, we do something about it.”
Serious problems in ITP sector
The commission was also asked about the future of the Institute of Technology and Polytechnic (ITP) sector amidst news of a further $8.5m bailout of Tai Poutini.
The West Coast institution was also given $3.6m last year and was highlighted by the commission in its briefing to the new government as an example of an industry teetering on the edge of financial failure.
Fowler said there were serious problems in the sector, with enrolments down nine percent last year - or about 5500 students.
“That in one year means the equivalent of the entire Manukau Institute of Technology has left the system, that’s a problem.”
While there were many good ITPs, structural and funding issues would have to be addressed so that quality was maintained, especially in the regions.