Tuition fees hike may force colleges to up their game

It wasn’t really a hard decision for me whether or not to go agricultural college.

I made a list of three: two colleges in Yorkshire (I like the place and I had the mentality of a homing pigeon at the time) and one down south – thrown in to please the parents because it had an excellent reputation.

I duly filled in the application forms. As an enthusiastic but inexperienced 18-year-old, it was a toss-up which was sparser: my completed application form or my knowledge of the attributes I should have been looking for in a place of study. Anyway, away I went to have a look around.

My decision was ultimately based on first impressions.

At one open day, a rather pompous lecturer expressed great surprise (and a heavy hint of disdain) to find that my family weren’t farmers. Being a lot more concerned about this then than I am now, I misguidedly concluded that if land ownership was a prerequisite for attendance there, there wasn’t much point me turning up with only our back garden in Huddersfield to talk about.

I went to another college on a foggy day during the holidays, and that was knocked off the list. Finally, visiting Askham Bryan – the place I eventually attended – one bright sunny day, something just seemed right. I was signed up.

Thankfully, I wasn’t facing paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees, which is on the cards for students now, with universities announcing their levels of tuition fees for the academic year 2012-13.

For those with agriculture departments, most are charging the maximum allowed. For many of the land-based colleges, of which I number in their proud alumni, their fees are yet to be announced.

Undoubtedly, this level of fees will lead to a reduction in the number of people who feel they are able to attend university. This much is obvious from the recent student protests – and assurances from the prime minister that only “in exceptional circumstances will some universities will be able to charge £9,000” have evidently gone by the wayside.

The decision now to go to agricultural college or university is trickier than it used to be. I still think it is worth going and I don’t see this is all bad news. The increase in fees should help to improve the sector, ensuring that universities and colleges make sure what they are offering potential students is up to date, practical, relevant and worth paying through the nose for – they’ll have to, otherwise people simply won’t apply to go.

Agricultural students will become savvier about where they wish to attend and what is in it for them in the long term. They will have their eyes open a little wider than I did, and base their decisions on a wider set of priorities.

It is likely that some young people will weigh up the options and go straight to work or into alternative training. This is no bad thing.

The 60,000 new entrants the government tells us the industry needs over the next decade will prove to be a mix of college and university graduates, time-served apprentices and people trained in other skills who see working in agriculture as a positive move.

It’s going to be harder for students, and I hope that extra support and help will be available to them. The rise in tuition fees is not the death knell for the future careers of young people though – it could well be the start of something better.

Adam Bedford completed an MSc in Rural Development at Newcastle University and now works for the NFU as a policy adviser.

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