7 September 2001

Students scared off?

Choosing what and where to study can be difficult.

You want a course that youll enjoy and that

will open doors to your dream job. But

its a tough call. Tim Relf looks at

what the trends are in the farming

and land-based sector

FOOT-AND-MOUTH is being blamed for accelerating the trend of would-be students turning their backs on straight agriculture courses.

Those from non-farming backgrounds are viewing the crisis as another turn-off after years of grim headlines about disease and disaster, while those from farming families are increasingly opting for broader countryside courses or agriculture with, say, marketing.

Popular choices include horse-based courses, says Tim Jackson, principal at Sparsholt College in Hants. Animal management and animal care have also been winners. "The Rolf Harris factor is very much in evidence."

Horticulture has also seen a big upturn, with the sector appealing to some farmers sons and daughters because it has similarities to agriculture and the prospect of good job opportunities.

"The interest in gardens and landscape has never been stronger. Many more jobs are available in the sector than there are people who are training," says Mr Jackson.

Howard Petch, of the Association of Land-Based Colleges, agrees. "Horticulture is undoubtedly a growth area. Some parts of the industry are struggling to find enough people."

Nationwide, straight agriculture has fallen out of fashion. F&M has exacerbated this trend, says Mr Jackson. "There has been a whole series of bad news items relating to the state in which many businesses find themselves. The public perception of the industry is that it is a bad one to go into."

Those from non-farming backgrounds in particular have been turned off the industry. "The message they get from mum and dad is you must be barmy."

Money issue

Money is an issue for would-be students, says Mr Jackson. "Going into agriculture may be a lifestyle choice, but when you hear farm incomes are under £5000/year, it puts them off."

However, Mr Jackson adds that with fewer people tempted to study agriculture, now could be a good time to choose it. And remember, the more certificates you can pick up along the way, the better. "Theyre a passport to career opportunities."

Mr Petch is also bullish about job opportunities for able students in some areas of farming. "Good quality livestock people – those with the aptitude and the attitude – have always been at a premium. There are still good jobs out there."

Yet Neil Cameron, chairman of the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, understands why fewer youngsters are opting for straight agriculture.

"If you are on a farm watching dad work 80 hours/week and having not much money at the end of the year, its inevitable. People want some financial security and leisure time."

Many prospective students are, he says, recognising farming as a business and are specialising in a particular field. If they want, for example, to run a farm shop, they might study a marketing-slanted course.

Similarly, as farming businesses have got bigger so the management of the different parts is increasingly allocated to different people. Farmers sons or daughters may, therefore, know which aspect of the business they intend to run and it makes sense for them to study a related subject.

"People used to just go and do agriculture. Now they are being more specific," says Mr Cameron.

However, he emphasises there is still a need for good people in the agricultural industry.

"We need to keep a good supply of young people coming in at the bottom. Farming in is a downturn now, but it will come back. If you work hard, get a good qualification and have practical experience, there are jobs out there and always will be."

Neil, an ex-Harper Adams and Sutton Bonington student, stresses that whatever course you choose, getting a qualification is a good move. "Even if you are going back to the family farm, fresh ideas will improve the business. Even if you want to move out of agriculture, a recognised qualification is transferable and can act as a stepping stone."

Career choice

Pick a subject to study in which you are interested, he advises, but also choose something with a possible career choice in mind.

Lots of people want to get into equine and environmental areas, says Neil. "But more people might be trying to get jobs than there are jobs available."

John Moveley, principal at Myserscough College in Lancs reckons that while the number of students enrolling for agriculture is "static", there has been big increases linked to leisure pursuits. "A movement toward the diversified rural economy."

Farming, however, needs more new people now than ever before. "I hope that out of the terrible tragedy of F&M we will be able to reinvent ourselves. We need people that look at agriculture in a more lateral way."