7 November 1997

Ag colleges fight harder

to entice younger students

16-year-olds who would have gone to agricultural college are

increasingly being persuaded to stay at school or go to 6th

form college. Nick Bond reports on a growing problem

AGRICULTURAL colleges have had to compete harder than ever to maintain their intake of students this autumn. Early indications are that higher education (HND and degree) course numbers have held up well but there has been a worrying drop in those entering further education, particularly at first diploma level.

Earlier this year agricultural colleges were the subject of a report by the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC). This highlighted the particular difficulties faced by agricultural colleges since incorporation in 1993, when FEFC took over responsibility for the core funding of further education(FE) courses from local education authorities (LEAs).

The difficulties it lists include a rapid decline in funding for each student, as well as the rural location and wide catchment area which often makes travel difficult and expensive. On top of that, numbers of discretionary awards have dropped, making it difficult to recruit students from outside colleges travel areas. Finally, the courses themselves tend to be costly to deliver.

However, many of those working in agricultural education regard the main challenge as direct competition from schools and sixth form colleges. They are concerned that schools now have a vested interest in encouraging 16-year-olds to stay on at school to re-sit GCSEs or study for A-levels, even when it could be in the youngsters best interests to study a vocational course.

Dropped out of A-level

Several colleges report that they are getting students after they have dropped out of A-level courses who would have been better served by starting a practical vocational course a year earlier.

David Beeb of Writtle College, where 30% of students are doing FE courses, confirms the trend: "Each year FE recruitment gets tougher and tougher. We are competing with schools with sixth forms and other FE colleges." He believes many younger school leavers are also being discouraged from further education by the cost and the problems of transport.

His comments are echoed by Carol Taylor, marketing manager at Berkshire College of Agriculture. "Overall, our full-time numbers are similar to last year. However it has proved more difficult to recruit at the lower levels. This may be due to perceptions of agriculture and allied industries but also because the pressure is on schools to retain students to re-sit their GCSEs or take equivalent programmes. With more schools opening sixth forms, competition will get harder."

Similar overall picture

At Moulton College, Northampton-shire, the principal, Chris Moody, reports a similar overall picture, with HE courses recruiting well and FE below average, but agriculture is bucking the general trend. "There has been a decrease in the number of national diploma (ND) students, except in agriculture where there has been a steady increase over the past few years. This seems to be a peculiar regional trend which is particularly welcome as for some years there have been more jobs available locally in agriculture than we have had students to fill them."

Chris Moody sees the demise of local education authority discretionary grants as a discouragement for FE students. "In Northants we are used to it – there has been no funding since 1992 – but it is now hitting students from neighbouring Bedfordshire, where it has been dropped, and Buckinghamshire, where it is hard to get."

Myerscough College in Lancashire reports an increased uptake in ND agriculture. "It is better than for some years with numbers up by 50%," reports Stuart Davidson, who is in charge of marketing at the college. "But first diploma entrants are down, due I am sure to the pressure on pupils to stay on at school."

As he points out, there are still discretionary grants available in Lancashire which are helping the ND students within the county but it is difficult to get funding in neighbouring counties. As a result more students are having to travel daily rather than take residential places.

The uncertainty of local funding is being felt across the country. In Lincolnshire the LEA announced last September that grants would cease this year. Then, with a change of political control in County Hall following the May council elections, grants were reinstated at the end of June. This, in the view of John Heald, marketing director for the School of Horticulture at De Montfort University, was welcome but rather late in the day as those affected by it would already have made their decisions.

Dave Goff, head of agriculture at Hadlow College in Kent, believes that their ND agriculture course remains viable and attracts students because they still operate a pre-college year and a sandwich placement.

But, he says: "This year we are seeing a drop in numbers on first diploma courses in agriculture, mainly due to funding issues now the grants have more or less gone. The issue of funding is of grave concern as is the loss of the pre-college and middle year at some colleges.

"It is vital that the funds are made available to ensure good quality education and training for the workforce of tomorrow. Without the practical training it is hard to see how the students will be able to obtain good jobs on the farm."

Hardest hit by the withdrawal of discretionary grants are the residential colleges which have built up a reputation as centres of excellence in a particular field. One such is Newton Rigg in Cumbria which has been noted for its forestry courses for over 30 years and attracted students from across the country.

"We used to have to turn students away," says Steve Watts, director of academic planning. But now very few FE students can get grants to study outside their home county. "This year the degree and HND Forestry courses are 10 to 15% up, the ND are about the same but the first diploma courses are struggling.

Created competition

These comments are reiterated by David Cleary, marketing and PR officer at Otley College, Suffolk. "The attitude still exists in a lot of schools and in parents minds that the only way to higher education is through A-levels.

"By increasing post-sixteen education the government has created competition which is not a bad thing provided it is done properly. The government has also said that individuals should get the funding to go wherever the courses are available but discretionary grants are needed for accommodation and transport."

One principal who feels strongly about the injustice of the system which discriminates between FE and HE students is David Hall of Pershore & Hindlip College. "In Hereford and Worcester they stopped discretionary grants in 1994. This means that twin brothers studying the same subject in the same college, one with sufficient A-level points to do an HND and the other only qualifying to do an ND, would not be treated equally," he points out. "The HND student would get a grant of £3500 and have access to a student loan while his brother would not get anything."