Low numbers of agricultural graduates nationwide
March 19, 2012
This is a very important motion which I am bringing to the House today, supported by a number of my colleagues from the coalition, because we do have a crisis right now—a crisis in the number of agriculture-related courses being offered, in the numbers of graduates, in the demands and needs of agribusiness in Australia and in the growing global food task that we are in danger of not being able to meet.
The Australian agricultural industry does have excellent career opportunities. There are over 100,000 jobs in the agricultural sector right across Australia, whether in horticulture or in other production sectors in animal husbandry or in cropping, whether in research and development or in the growing of markets for produce. There is a wide range of domestic and international jobs associated with the agricultural sector. Yet we have a situation in Australia today where there are fewer people working in agribusiness when compared to any other sector, given the size and the contribution of the sector to Australia's economy. There is a diverse range of career opportunities which require a whole range of skill levels.
We have an understanding of the growing food task internationally. Part of that global food task is the need for more refined foods and higher value foods. Australia is amazingly well-situated to provide much of the value for exports into that growing global food market, yet we have this crisis back home.
We also have to recognise that it is not just a matter of throwing dollars at increasing the numbers of places, or subsidised places, with registered training organisations, in TAFE institutions or at universities, although that is a very important part of the solution. I note that today—and I have no doubt that the speaker to follow me will stress this long and hard—the government has reannounced the commitment it made in the last budget to further education and training. The tragedy, when you look at what the government has committed to the area of agribusiness training and at what grants have been put into the system, is that virtually nothing has gone to this agricultural education sector. For decades now, it has been hugely ignored.
There is a skills deficit crisis in the agricultural sector. Across the nation, the agrifood industry is facing a critical lack of people. In 2012, the decline in Australian agriculture related graduate rates, the decline in the numbers of agricultural science and agribusiness academics, the decline in the levels of agricultural sector research and development, and the slowing rate of agricultural productivity growth are all indisputable and well-documented facts.
On the other hand, the opportunities for agribusiness production and domestic and export sales are growing exponentially. We are in a situation where we could meet the demands; but we are starving the sector of trained personnel. The number of agricultural graduates produced nationally falls short of the calculated needs by a factor of as much as 6 to 1. In particular, there are very few graduates taking up the opportunity to take a higher degree by research in agriculture— these would be the innovators of the next generation. This is not altogether surprising, given that the postgraduate research scholarships on offer hover around the poverty line level of support, paying much less than a graduate salary, and there is also a focus on short-term projects funded by soft money, as many have observed. As a person in your late 20s, if you want to go into postgraduate research you really have to have someone else paying your way. In comparison with other sectors in the economy, agriculture has a far lower proportion of graduates working in it. It has also been found that when an agricultural enterprise employs relevant graduates they have measurable increases in productivity. If you can find yourself a graduate, you know that they are going to do more than earn their keep in a very short time. In a 2009 submission to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture stated:
Maintaining the productivity of agriculture and helping the industry meet future challenges, including climate change, will require underpinning research together with strong professional input and a well trained production workforce. The low number of graduates and doctoral students entering agriculture puts this at risk.
We know the farm dependent economy represents about 12 per cent of the national GNP. The industry exports around two-thirds of what it produces and contributes in the order of 15 per cent to 20 per cent of export earnings to the national economy. Yet there has been a steady decline in the output of graduates in agriculture from universities, TAFEs and anywhere else you can find them over the last decade and that is despite the fact that jobs are going begging.
Why have we got this enormous disconnect between jobs available and future demand for the output of the sector and younger people prepared to go into this industry? Another dimension of this is the ageing population of the agricultural sector. What is the problem? The problem quite simply is a loss of a sense of a future in this industry sector. It has been hard hit by government policy, particularly in the last five years. Take, for example, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We have just met with representatives of the National Irrigators Council a few steps from here and those irrigators right around the Murray-Darling Basin say to us: 'Give us a break. We can prosper in the agribusiness sector of Australia. We are some of the world's most innovative and highly productive rice growers. We still have the capacity to grow some of the finest wool fibre in the world. We do a magnificent job with our fruit and dairy production at low costs. Our competitors internationally are 40 per cent subsidised. Australia's highest level of agriculture subsidy never gets above four per cent. We with New Zealand are the lowest in terms of government support in the globe in a developed country.'
Farmers are being hit hard by the carbon tax costs coming down the line and by the taking of irrigation water for no justifiable or demonstrable environmental outcome. Farmers are environmentalists. The people who work in agribusiness are environmentalists—they have to be to survive—but when they are told that they will be the ones who will earn the green votes for Labor by transferring their water from the food and fibre production account to the environment in the Basin Plan with no demonstrable outcome for the environment then farmers lose heart. No wonder their sons and daughters, the younger generation of rural based people, who could be going to regional universities, TAFE colleges or RTOs, look at their parents working so hard, investing incredible amounts in assets—$2 million to $3 million to start a farm—look at the high risk in the sector, given this government's response to it, and say: 'It's not for us. We will go and earn a salary somewhere in the public sector. We will go across to the mining sector. Agribusiness is too hard for us to invest years in training and then expect a reasonable career.' This is a tragedy for this country. This really must be re-addressed.
The Australian population has to understand where food comes from. We have just seen amazing research which found that a lot of our children think that avocados are manufactured and that a dairy product is not something that comes from an animal. They do not know that socks are made of a fibre that is grown on a plant. There is this enormous disconnect between what our Australian population understands about their food security and their fibre, and who produces it and how. This has to change if we are going to have a future for agribusiness in Australia. Our universities have to be given a lot more support in terms of bursaries and cadetships. Our younger people have to be resold the notion that agribusiness is a magnificent sector and one with an enormous future that they have to grasp with both hands. We have to make sure that our smaller primary schools and secondary schools which have land attached to them—they often do—are developed for agribusiness studies. A whole range of jobs have to be done right now. The sector cannot do it by themselves. They need a partnership with state and federal governments. That partnership is going begging as far as the federal government is concerned, and I am sure that in a few minutes we will be told by the government's representative that it is all okay because a few hundreds of millions or a billion or so were thrown at it in the last budget. That is not good enough. We have to make sure that our training establishments have the resources to offer good courses and that the marketing of agribusiness is effectively and appropriately managed in Australia. It is not just a case of changing the name 'agriculture'; it is about making sure that the prospects for the sector are well understood and that we have our brightest and best men and women entering agriculture. That focus will probably need to be with our tertiary institutions in the regions.
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