Royal Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity an­tic­i­pates post-Brexit wind­fall

Royal Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity’s v-c tells Jack Grove why new de­gree cour­ses will be vi­tal for sec­tor’s fu­ture

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Jack.grove@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

At­tract­ing young peo­ple to work in the Bri­tish coun­try­side is prov­ing an up­hill strug­gle: just 3 per cent of UK farm hold­ers are un­der 35, with the av­er­age age now at 59 and ris­ing.

Post-Brexit, the task looks even tougher. Last sum­mer, some farms had to leave fruit rot­ting in the fields af­ter they strug­gled to find sea­sonal work­ers from east­ern Europe to pick it. At the same time, un­cer­tainty about gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies has done lit­tle to en­cour­age op­ti­mism in an agri­cul­tural sec­tor that em­ploys nearly 500,000 peo­ple; with­out di­rect pay­ments, al­most half of UK farms (42 per cent) would make a loss, a gov­ern­ment anal­y­sis pub­lished in March showed.

How­ever, some in the in­dus­try, which is worth £23 bil­lion an­nu­ally, are choos­ing to look more pos­i­tively at the UK’s im­mi­nent with­drawal from the Euro­pean Union.

“Agri­cul­ture is the sec­tor that is ar­guably most affected by Brexit, but we have de­cided to see it as an op­por­tu­nity,” ex­plained Joanna Price, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Royal Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity, which has launched a £2.5 mil­lion project to help meet the needs of the land management and agri-food sec­tors in the post-Brexit era.

As part of the ini­tia­tive – which also in­volves the Coun­try­side and Com­mu­nity Re­search In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Glouces­ter­shire as well as the Univer­sity Col­lege of Es­tate Management – some £1.1 mil­lion was awarded by the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land in its last few months through its Cat­a­lyst Fund to cre­ate new qual­i­fi­ca­tions to at­tract more stu­dents into agri­cul­ture.

New in­ten­sive two-year de­grees, on­line learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and post­grad­u­ate cour­ses, which will be de­vel­oped with in­dus­try part­ners, will give those work­ing in other sec- tors the chance to get in­volved in agri­cul­ture, said Pro­fes­sor Price, who be­came the Cirences­ter in­sti­tu­tion’s first fe­male head when she joined in Septem­ber 2016 from the Univer­sity of Bris­tol’s Ve­teri­nary School.

“Peo­ple of­ten think about agri­cul­ture as sim­ply work­ing on the land, but there are many other roles along the whole sup­ply chain of food that re­quire spe­cial­ist skills,” Pro­fes­sor Price told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, giv­ing as an ex­am­ple “some­one from bank­ing who wants to move into [food] lo­gis­tics”.

Pro­fes­sor Price, who told the The Times last year that she wanted to shed the in­sti­tu­tion’s fusty im­age that it ed­u­cates mainly “men wear­ing tweed jack­ets with leather patches and yel­low cords”, said that the new suite of cour­ses could help to di­ver­sify the univer­sity’s in­take.

“We need to in­no­vate and build a new in­fras­truc­ture of accelerated de­grees and part-time pro­grammes de­liv­ered in a flex­i­ble way that will meet the needs of this sec­tor,” she said.

Pro­fes­sor Price added that she hoped that agri­cul­tural stud­ies would also be viewed more favourably by academia it­self af­ter Brexit, es­pe­cially amid grow­ing con­cerns about food se­cu­rity if the in­dus­try strug­gles to find suf­fi­cient staff.

“If we are go­ing to be more pro­duc­tive and more self-suf­fi­cient af­ter Brexit, we are go­ing to have to use science and data to help agri­cul­ture and grad­u­ates work­ing in the in­dus­try,” she said.

A branch of STEM

Too of­ten, re­search cen­tred on agri­cul­ture is seen as the poor re­la­tion of the more main­stream dis­ci­plines of science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics that make up “STEM”, Pro­fes­sor Price con­tin­ued.

“Of all the sub­jects in­volved in science and tech­nol­ogy, agri­cul­ture should be high up – it should cer­tainly be seen as a STEM sub­ject,” she ex­plained.

“In the US and Europe, they talk about agri­cul­ture as a STEM sub­ject, but there is a bit of an im­age prob­lem about what agri­cul­ture means in the UK,” added Pro­fes­sor Price, sug­gest­ing that we should talk about “STEAM” sub­jects in­stead.

With aca­demics now in­creas­ingly asked to demon­strate the im­pact of their re­search, this re­luc­tance to en­gage with agri­cul­tural science – a tremen­dously in­dus­try-fac­ing area – is likely to fade over time, Pro­fes­sor Price said.

“We are mov­ing in the right direc­tion with the greater em­pha­sis on im­pact, but we’re try­ing to make up for lost time,” she said.

“We have not in­vested enough in re­search around this in­dus­try for a long time, but the type of fund­ing for ed­u­ca­tion that we’re see­ing is a good ex­am­ple of how we can help this in­dus­try.”

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Beef­ing up ‘if we are go­ing to be more pro­duc­tive and more self-suf­fi­cient af­ter Brexit, we are go­ing to have to use science and data to help agri­cul­ture’, says Joanna Price, vice-chan­cel­lor of the Royal Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity (be­low)

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