Senate debates

Thursday, 21 June 2012


Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee; Report

12:24 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the final report of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee on higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I present to the Senate the second and final report of the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee on its inquiry into higher education and skills training to support future demand in agriculture and agribusiness in Australia.

The committee's report was shaped around 69 submissions, three public hearings around the country and numerous other reports that the committee drew upon in reaching its recommendations.

The committee's report includes 11 recommendations that we commend to the Senate. They are, if acted upon by the government, certainly recommendations that would go a long way in addressing the key challenges facing the food and fibre sector at the present time. The committee's recommendations go to:

•   Equipping teachers to inform students about the opportunities in agriculture;

•   Improving the delivery of vocational education and training around Australia;

•   Breaking down the barriers within the higher education sector to improve knowledge sharing and research penetration;

•   Ensuring that the Australian education landscape continues to include tertiary agricultural institutions;

and, perhaps most importantly:

•   The formation of an overarching peak body with the authority from all areas of the food and fibre sector to speak on their behalf with government, with the community, and to holistically tackle problems facing the sector.

Agriculture has always been, and remains, in this country a key pillar of the economy. If one takes into account the number of Australians either directly or indirectly employed by agriculture or agribusiness, you are looking at around one in six jobs. Economically, this sector contributes more than three per cent of GDP to our economy, and a healthy food and fibre sector in Australia is key to ensuring our ongoing economic prosperity.

The committee repeatedly heard that there is a desperate need to attract and train more people to work in the agricultural and agribusiness fields. Research undertaken by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture has shown that there is a need to graduate some 4,000 university students per year to fill the vacancies, yet at the moment we are graduating only around 700. The skills shortage of course is not confined to university graduates; the committee received evidence indicating that in occupations from farmhands through to agronomists and researchers there are pervasive shortages.

In the past the agricultural and agribusiness sector was well serviced by a network of universities, registered training organisations and tertiary agricultural institutions. It is in relation to the latter that the greatest threat of extinction exists. These colleges provide the sector with graduates who are practically minded but armed with strong theoretical knowledge of the underpinnings of agricultural science and/or business. This combination of attributes and abilities was repeatedly commended to the committee as being what employers in the sector require.

Last September I rose in this place to lament the decline of the old pillars of agricultural learning excellence in this country, and it saddens me to report to the Senate that during the committee's inquiry agricultural first-year enrolments at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in New South Wales were suspended because of a lack of demand.

This seemingly ceaseless decline of agricultural education providers will not be reversed without serious consideration of the causes behind the decline of agricultural institutions specifically and agricultural enrolments generally.

The committee's report, which I commend to all senators, identifies key issues around student demand for agricultural courses, as well as solutions to address the problem.

Evidence received from the committee overwhelmingly showed that the level of agricultural literacy in our wider community, particularly the urban community, is very low. It is concerning that, in a recent survey, 10 per cent of university students at one of our most prestigious east coast universities thought that beef was a source of vegetable protein. If university students cannot tell the difference between the animal and the vegetable product, how can they be expected to know what career options might be available to them? The committee's report includes recommendations to work with teachers and students to address these deficiencies, starting at the primary school level, through secondary school and into tertiary education.

Many efforts have been expended to date in trying to address the concerns raised during the inquiry and to attract more people into agriculture and into agribusiness. However, this energy has been dispersed to date, rather than targeted, providing contradictory voices, and competing for attention at both government and senior levels as well as competing for limited funding.

Perhaps the key message to emerge from the committee's inquiry was that the traditional narrative of 'agricultural' has become associated not with innovation, excitement or opportunity but with hardship, isolation and monotonous, hard labour. Simply put, agriculture is not portrayed as an attractive option for students or career changers. Agriculture and agribusiness need a new narrative with which to reach out to prospective students and to the wider community with more attractive options.

The key recommendations of the report go to the critical matter of the need to form a new peak body to represent the agriculture and the agribusiness sectors as a whole. If we want to address the skills shortage in agriculture, if we want to improve agricultural literacy in the community, if we want to stop the decline in places of agricultural learning, if we want to ensure adequate, ongoing financing for the sector and particularly for agricultural research, there needs to be a peak body with the authority and resources to provide a united voice for the sector.

The benefits of having a single peak body at the table to represent everyone from the farmer to the financier, from the educator to the processor, are many, and I will briefly include at least three: firstly, a forum for those in the sector to thrash out their differences and to address joint concerns; secondly, a single point of high-level engagement for governments, state and federal, on key public policy matters such as foreign ownership, education and consumer concerns; and, finally and most critically, a strong voice advocating for agriculture and agribusiness, telling the positive stories of opportunity, excitement, and prosperity to students, to career changers and to the wider community.

In summary, the committee's view is that there is a critical need to ensure that Australia is properly placed to meet the demands of a growing population here and particularly in the Asian region and of changing consumer habits while continuing to significantly improve industry productivity. I have often made the statement in this place that we have the challenge of feeding 1.9 billion more people in the Asian region by 2050, and Australia must position itself to make that contribution. I have also made the observation that agricultural productivity improvement has declined radically in the last decade or more from some 2.7 per cent increase annually from the mid-seventies to the last decade to now less than one per cent of increased productivity per annum. The only way we can position ourselves to make that contribution is if the agriculture and the agribusiness sectors have access to enough skilled employees to expand, enough trained researchers to develop new practices, and enough professionals to drive innovation and productivity growth. These people will not miraculously appear; they need to be attracted to careers in our sector, and they need to be provided with the training and the skills that will enable them to forge successful and rewarding careers. To do that, we first need to ensure that the structures and the facilities are in place which are capable of training these people who are required by industry, and in turn, the best way to ensure that education and industry are on the same page is through the development of a high-level peak body where all sectors are represented around the table.

In presenting this report to the Senate I acknowledge the contribution of all those who took time to prepare submissions and to appear before the various hearings and those, of course, who made wider contributions. I conclude with my appreciation to the secretariat, who worked diligently and conscientiously to assist the committee in presenting its report and its recommendations. I commend the report to the Senate.

12:34 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak to this motion to take note of the report Higher education and skills training to supportagriculture and agribusiness in Australia. Whilst Senator Back extends his thanks on behalf of the committee to a variety of people, I would like to extend my thanks to Senator Back for championing this issue and for his leadership around bringing this particular reference to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee.

Australia has been recently cited as becoming the food bowl of Asia—an idea, apparently, whose time has come. We already export 60 per cent of our produce. ABARES says there is potential for Australia to lift the value of its agricultural exports by 140 per cent by 2050, but this is not going to happen without a skilled, competent workforce to conduct that industry. We need to invest in education and training in the agricultural sector so that we can innovate and drive productivity gains that are needed right across the sector to continue to develop our competitive advantage.

We investigated the skills shortage. Senator Back has already made reference to the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture report that there have been 700 graduates annually in agricultural and related courses in recent years and yet there are 4,000 positions a year needing to be filled in the sector. In my own home state of Victoria, in the north-west, there were over 30 vacancies for agronomists across the region and there were actually no applicants. There is a serious outcry right across the industry for highly skilled graduates, which is what the committee report wanted to address.

I will not go into the same issues that Senator Back did, but I would like to mention a couple. One of the areas we focused on was the cost and funding of agriculture and agribusiness education in universities—and it is cost intensive. It is a lot cheaper to have a bunch of law students or teachers sitting in university lecture halls than it is to have a bunch of scientists running sometimes very expensive and complex scientific experiments on a farm down the road. So it is cost intensive, but our funding models do not address that. As an example, there is an educational facility in my home state, Longerenong College, which has a 1,000-plus hectare farm being used as an educative tool for young students passionate about agriculture. That farm is not going to be making a profit, because part of education is about making mistakes—about learning what works and what does not. So to assume that a farm you are running to educate people in agricultural business will make a profit would just be wrong. We need to recognise that. An additional cost and funding issue for agriculture and agricultural education is the fact that regional and rural based campuses do not have the economies of scale that urban based campuses do. As a result, their costs are higher.

We did not look only at tertiary education in the agricultural sector; we were also looking at more vocationally based education. I am happy to say that my own home state is also conducting a review of agri-education and has continued its strong support of agricultural education in Victorian TAFEs. On the issue of the cost of funding agriculture and agribusiness education, Latrobe University, Melbourne noted in their evidence that they may in future be forced to sell their on-campus farm reserve in order to restore other teaching infrastructure. So the question of where to best use resources is a complex and tension filled discussion within higher education institutions which offer agricultural education. Usually, the farm gets sold.

We heard a suggestion from the Hon. Dr Hendy Cowan to address this—a funding loading of 50 per cent to agricultural colleges. I thought that was quite useful. In their evidence, Latrobe University argued that, in order to reverse the declining number of student enrolments, it is critical for industry to promote itself and the opportunities available. That was another theme that came through in our deliberations— the role of industry, community, academics, educators and scientists to promote all that is fantastic about agriculture. They need to promote the benefits of living and working in the regions in a profitable, high-tech industry which involves international travel and international trade. It is an industry where you get to live in the best part of Australia—that being the regions, Senator Humphries. It is up to everybody, particularly the industry, to promote agriculture as a positive story. One of the issues we heard about was that young people are making decisions at a very early age about what they will study and what careers they want to take up. That means it is important, in order to increase demand, to let parents, students, communities, schools and universities know that there is a bright and positive future in getting involved in agriculture. This requires collaboration and a joint effort.

Having been a teacher educator myself, I think it is important to turn young teachers on to agriculture—to enlighten them about all that is good and wholesome about it—so that they can go out into their classrooms, once they graduate, without it being an alien topic for them to bring up in those classrooms. I think one of the key recommendations the report makes is for those within teacher education faculties and agricultural faculties at universities to collaborate on promoting agricultural education and turning young people on to the industry.

I am conscious that Senator Macdonald wanted to have a say on this report, so I will not extend my remarks. The only other thing I wanted to mention was the amount of research funding that goes into agriculture. We had evidence that applications for funding for agriculture related research in universities, through the Australian Research Council grant process, have not enjoyed a high success rate. Right throughout our community, we have to get real about our role—whether it is the ARC, teachers, parents or industry—in promoting agriculture. We need to do that so that we can take advantage of the great opportunities this industry provides, not only to our nation through exports and contribution to GDP but also in the social aspects out in the regions—the underpinning of the local economies outside our capital cities. I absolutely commend this report. I thank everybody who worked on it, made submissions to it and contributed to its completion.

12:43 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to congratulate Senator Back, Senator McKenzie and the other members of the committee on the report Higher education and skills training to support agriculture and agribusiness in Australia. It has just been tabled, so I have not yet had the opportunity to read it in detail. But, having heard the principal recommendation, I have to say that it is most appropriate. The timing of the tabling of the report is impeccable. Many of my colleagues and I yesterday attended the breakfast put on by the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education, who had a roundtable here coinciding with the roundtable on the Rebuilding the agricultural workforce report yesterday morning and the previous day. There were a lot of discussion group meetings in this parliament about the very issue which is the subject of this report. What I heard from the leading people in agriculture and agricultural education at breakfast yesterday morning was that we need one centre to coordinate all of the teaching areas. So the recommendation by the committee is prescient and, as I said, very timely. Coming from a rural town in North Queensland, I well understand the need for skills training in agriculture and the importance of getting people to focus on a future in agriculture. Whilst a lot of work is being done in skills training, as I mentioned at the breakfast yesterday it is no good getting a workforce skilled in agricultural areas unless there is someone to employ them. Frankly, I do worry about the future of our agricultural industries. Most of our agricultural industries are price takers and every impost that contributes to their cost of production makes our farmers less viable. The carbon tax, on top of every other tax, and difficult workplace relationships with the awards and regulations in the workplace make it more difficult for our farmers to make a quid. Unless they are able to make a quid, regrettably they will not be around for long. The first thing many friends of mine who are farmers advise their children is to not come onto the farm and to go and get a university education and get yourself skilled in an area where you can be certain of a future and where you will get a pay cheque at the end of every fortnight. That is a problem, but I do not know what the solution is. Certainly we can all talk about reducing input costs and reducing regulation on agriculture, but that is easy—it is much more difficult to do anything.

I am very critical of the carbon tax, but that is not the subject of my contribution today—except to point out that it is things like the carbon tax that keep putting costs up for our farmers. The more you do that, the less they are able to compete with farmers in other parts of the world. At yesterday's breakfast I was talking to a skills person from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation who reminded me that it is 15 years since any approval has been given for an aquaculture farm in Queensland or Western Australia—I do not know about the other states. With the wild fishery being reduced all the time—it is going to be reduced even more with this quite ridiculous bioregional planning regime that has been announced in recent times—either we have to import fish, and 70 per cent of our fish is imported already and I understand it will go up to 80 per cent within a few years, or we have to farm our fish. I have been personally involved with an attempt by a group to open up a prawn farm between Ayr and Bowen in North Queensland but the green tape has meant that they have spent four years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to meet what are in my view, although I am not a scientist, quite ridiculous regimes and rules for the operation of an aquaculture farm. Hopefully they will get there, but gee it is a struggle for them. When they do get there, they will need skilled people—and that is why the report before the chamber is so important.

The North Queensland Centre for Tropical Agriculture is a college upriver from Ayr in the small township of Claredale. For years it was the Burdekin Agricultural College; it changed its name and its focus a couple of years ago. It is a Queensland government agricultural college which focuses on training people who want to have a future in agriculture. I express my support for that centre, for the work they do and for the students they turn out who come into the workforce as skilled people.

The importance of this report is also highlighted by the fact that with the boom in our mining industry a lot of skilled and unskilled workers in the agricultural areas, I suspect everywhere but I know it to be the case in North Queensland, have left agriculture and gone to work in the mines. They can drive a cane harvester—quite technical employment which requires some training—in the sugar industry or they can go and get a job driving big machinery in the mines. They are getting double, at times even treble, what they would get in agriculture.

That brings me back to the point I was making earlier, which was that unless our farmers can compete in the world, unless they can be profitable, I am pessimistic about the future of rural industries. Given good political leadership, which regrettably we are not getting now, we can turn it around. I am confident that in the future we will make our farmers viable and profitable again. I have a passion about opening up vast tracts of good arable land in northern Australia. There is a big mosaic of good agricultural land in the north, and we have all the water that could ever be needed to irrigate crops. Regrettably, again, the current government has not done much in the area but I am very pleased that the coalition will go to the next election with a very positive policy on Northern Australia. By developing many parts of the North for agriculture we can feed not only Australians but the burgeoning millions, even billions, in Asia and the subcontinent.

Again, congratulations go to those senators involved in this report. I know it will be well received in industry and I hope the government does take note of the recommendations that have been made.

Question agreed to.