Opinion: Agriculture education must be adequately funded

By Terry Copeland

OPINION: The future of education for those who keep the country afloat has hit tumultuous times.

Just before Christmas it was announced that Taratahi and Telford, New Zealand’s only real tertiary level institutes for agriculture education, were going into voluntary liquidation due to not being able to deliver the education programmes at the rate funded from Government. 

Yes, there are historical financial penalties still being paid back, and the number of students forecasted for 2018 dropped from an expected 900 EFTS (equivalent full-time students) to approximately 550. Everyone in agriculture leadership is aware of this situation and the need for a collaborative solution. 

This will include: industry groups, education providers and the Government.

This week I have been in talks with the Minister for Education Chris Hipkins.

The talks were of the future and what steps will be put in place to secure a path for tertiary training for agriculture. I can’t be much more specific but can say we are all aware of where the failures are, that the only way to build back up is if everyone works as a team, and that a sustainable way of funding needs to be found and secured.

Agriculture provides one in six jobs in New Zealand, so a much better funding model is needed than what has been in place up until now. 

An interim liquidator has been appointed following financial troubles at the Wairarapa-based institute since 2014.
An interim liquidator has been appointed following financial troubles at the Wairarapa-based institute since 2014. Photo credit: Newshub

Let me share some facts on tertiary education funding with you. Many polytechnics in New Zealand have moved away from agri courses because the funding levels don’t meet the costs of delivery. The Government funds universities around $22,000 per EFT (and more for medicine, dentistry, etc). Polytechnics get around $12,000 per EFT even though these courses are more hands on and require fewer a higher teacher to student ratio. 

It's relatively easy to teach subjects such as law, art history and sociology when compared to agriculture which needs a farm situation, tractors, sheep, the odd crop, fences.

My understanding is that for 2019, Taratahi’s funding was to be reduced to about $10,000 per Equivalent Full-time Student (EFTS) at level three and above and $13,000 at level two. The industry requires graduates at level three and four for most of the employment opportunities. At $10,000 a student this funding is below the cost of delivering the quality of education we require.

One is left wondering how many universities would survive if their funding per student was at this level. Should we as a country be sending the signal that vocational training isn’t as valuable as traditional academic? 

As Taratahi had fewer students in 2018 than anticipated, some have - in our view incorrectly - leapt to the conclusion this is solely of Taratahi’s making.  Ironically, the reason is due to there being such a shortage of people to work on farms that rather than undertaking a training course on the hope of getting a job at the end, they are going straight to farm employment.

If we want to attract young urban students, more Maori/Pasifika, then there is a need for residential courses providing a transition between school and the work place. If our economy changes and unemployment rises, competing for talent will demand a strong tertiary agri presence.

A significant number of polytechnics have made losses over the past few years and the Government has bailed them out to the tune of tens of millions of dollars showing there is a systemic funding issue within the tertiary sector.

Minister Hipkins has informed me that he is committed to finding a solution for tertiary vocational education and it is my hope that a practical and affordable system is put in place to assist industries in attracting and developing our future workforce. 

He is well aware of the needs of the agriculture sector and he knows a solution is needed and fast. 

After all, the primary industry is the backstop the country has when we are hit by economic disasters like the Global Financial Crisis. 

Further Government investment is needed now so that in future New Zealand can survive any other financial hit it may be struck by.

We need Taratahi and Telford to not only be successful, but to ensure agriculture can thrive.  

Terry Copeland is chief executive of Federated Farmers.