Monday, December 05, 2005

Jacqueline Rowarth : Anderton hits innovation chord with pledge to agricultural sector

The new Minister of Agriculture, Jim Anderton, has wasted little time in delivering the words many of us have been waiting to hear - that the Government is committed to research, development and innovation in the agricultural sector.

He seems to have grasped at least some of the problems in agriculture already - the need for improving image perceptions, greater industry promotion of opportunities and increased industry training and modern apprenticeships.

He has also recognised the need to attract the best and brightest people into the farming and forestry sectors.

In order to do this, Anderton has indicated that the Government is considering bonding through scholarships, akin to the old teacher-training scholarships that meant teachers were actually paid by the Government to study.

But it will take more than free tertiary education. This is Generation Y we are trying to attract.

The good news is that Generation Y is environmentally aware. More good news is that members of Generation Y care about time for family, friends, and lifestyle. They are focused on enjoying life in balanced fashion.

But the lifestyle and balance they expect is nothing like what the old student teacher-trainees endured.

These are children of a privileged generation. They are choosing to live at home so they can continue the lifestyle their parents can afford. They have cars, mobile phones and work to pay for petrol and communication.

These are factors we must recognise to achieve what the country needs.

Students enrolled in tertiary education commit time, energy and dollars for their futures, and many of them minimise the impact on opportunity cost by working during their education. A full-time student in business studies has a lecture timetable that probably has fewer than 15 hours of lectures a week. In contrast, a full-time agricultural science student probably has more than 35 hours of lectures and laboratories a week. Both have assignments to do; in science the homework includes writing up laboratory experiments.

Students in agricultural science don't have time to work during the semester and in the breaks they are trainees on farms - getting the work experience that will make them valuable members of the community.

And whereas students in business can choose from many different tertiary providers, students in agriculture can choose Massey or Lincoln (now working together through their Partnership for Excellence). This means that most of them will not be able to live at home.

Students in business will study for three years. In agricultural science the degree takes four. To become a scientist will take at least another three years at postgraduate level.

Factor all this together and it will take more than a fees scholarship to attract the savvy student into agricultural science.

The Government also needs to be overt about the value it places on the work the agriculture and science communities do. This requires improvements in salary, security and status.

Most people want to be able to plan their futures (salary and security) and know that they will be valued by society (status). Add lifestyle to the three Ss, and the Y Generation members will be attracted (as long as it doesn't cost too much).

Anderton has said that science is critical to our future - in this sector and many others - "because most of our success is based on research and the commercial development to which it leads. Science is the key to unlocking further productivity gains in the primary production sector."

Who turns the key? The agricultural scientist.

* Jacqueline Rowarth is director of the Office for Environmental Programmes at Melbourne University.

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