Easton & Otley College principal David Lawrence OBE is in the chair for this month’s Q&A
Easton & Otley College principal David Lawrence OBE is in the chair for this month’s Q&A. Dominic Kilburn puts the questions to him.What are the key challenges and opportunities that young people and new entrants face when selecting and beginning their careers in the agricultural sector, and how may they best overcome those challenges? There are tremendous opportunities for young people in the agricultural sector. The challenge is to try and get them to consider the opportunities that we have. Because careers advice that young people/potential students receive tends to be very focussed on university level education rather than career opportunities, they are less likely to hear about the more specialist courses that we teach. There are also some challenges to do with funding some of that work – particularly for students over the age of 24. But on the whole – the opportunities outstrip those challenges every time. What are the main challenges that the farming industry faces in attracting and keeping the right number and calibre of people to work, manage and own agri-businesses in the future?
This question I believe is the bigger issue. We are in a very competitive situation with a significant number of other industries because we all want technician level individuals in our industry. At the moment we may have a slight advantage because we do have jobs and some of the others (industries) are affected by current economic circumstances. This is only a temporary reprieve. Today, everybody is going after the same individuals and our challenge is to get our opportunities considered by young people.
Unless we can recruit enough people as new entrants we will never have enough people in the more specialist bits of work and at the higher levels (eg applied research or lecturers in college).The Future of Farming Review is an industry-led initiative, in partnership with Government, which aims to assess the workforce that will be needed by a sustainable, productive and resilient agriculture sector now and in the future. Have you had personal involvement in the Review and do you think it will address the long-term needs of the industry?
Yes through Landex – but not directly. I don’t think the Review goes far enough. It says there is no market failure. I think there is a market failure in a number of areas in specialisms at various levels. For example, I think agricultural engineering is as near to market failure as you can get, in that the demand for individuals with the skills by far outstrips the supply. And the higher up the skills level you go, the more acute the problem is. For example, lecturers with the right skills are virtually impossible to recruit at the moment. The same could also apply in field scale vegetable production and quite a few areas of horticulture.
The report doesn’t really deal with those issues – it talks about the future of farming and I think that’s too narrow a view and it needs to have covered a broader range of related industries.
Certainly in our work, I’ve been chairing for the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership that covers Norfolk and Suffolk Food and Farming – and the Rural Enterprise Board. Our view is that addressing the shortage of individuals at the right level is our top priority. I’m not sure that the Review fully understands the issues that are there. The report talks about qualifications – but I’m not sure they are the only issue. It’s about how things are delivered in partnership together so that we get people to the right standards. Colleges will never be able to do that on their own and neither will industry – it has to be a joint effort. Colleges and Universities need to deliver skills at the right level to industry and you have to work together to achieve this.
The most fundamental weakness of the report from where I sit is that it really doesn’t deal with the issues and long term funding for this work. Funding nationally is under severe pressure.
This creates significant incentives for land-based colleges to drop the subjects with low volumes and we’ve seen that over the past 15 years this trend isn’t getting any less. If we are to deal with the schools issue, we need a strong effective college network that is delivering agricultural and horticultural skills.
Staff and capital costs of doing this are very significant and because of the skill shortage in mainstream agriculture, the pay levels that need to be met are significantly above what is normally funded through the normal college funding system.
So while I welcome the future of farming review and it’s a very important work, I don’t think it’s gone far enough to actually really make a difference to some of this work. Part of the reason is that it’s entirely situated in Defra – whereas a large amount of funding is coming from the Department of Education and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
Unless the two departments buy into this strategy, the college and university sectors are trying to deal with this issue with their hands tied behind their backs.What effect will the Government’s proposed ‘revamp’ of the education system have on land-based courses and their uptake by students?
I think we should be very worried about what is going on in terms of education policy.
It makes our challenge much harder in terms of recruiting students to our subjects because the emphasis in schools will be on academic qualifications and progression to higher education, rather than to vocational education.
In our own college, we have seen the numbers of students studying vocational education (at ages 14-16) decline significantly as the qualifications they were doing no longer meet the performance league table requirements that are critical to schools.
Couple this with pressure on schools budgets and demographic reductions in the number of 15 year olds, that is a very significant challenge to the system and I think we need to lobby very hard to ensure that the industries that have jobs – and that have a proven track record of moving young people into good long term careers with prospects – are able to get those opportunities across to those young people.Land prices and rents have risen dramatically over the past decade. How concerned are you that this will prevent new entrants from starting in the industry and what needs to done to encourage them into farming?
This is not a new issue and it is only one route in and now there are many others. However we have in Norfolk and Suffolk been dealing with these issues and very much agree with what is in the Future of Farming Review and that the county councils’ small holding estates do have a role to play in this.
I’m really pleased that the reviews that have been carried out in both counties have led to new tenancies being available for new entrants, and we’ve seen several former students progress into this route.
However, it is only a start. We have seen some success with it and it is clearly an important route.Over the past 20 years, there has been a big push by the industry to portray a better image of farming to the general public. Do you think this has been successful and is there more that can be done?
Yes I think we are improving the image of farming. It’s not just about farming though and that is the point, it’s a much bigger industry.
We need to do more to get all of the careers and opportunities in front of the general public.
I do think it is more attractive to students. I do see a number of youngsters who feel that they can make a difference to the world through this industry.
Clearly there is still a lot more work to be done. And we do tend to do it in a very disconnected way rather than have a strategy that we are collectively following.
That’s one of the things we are working together on with our colleagues at the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, the Suffolk Agricultural Association and related charities, to try and form a more strategic approach to how we work with schools in particular because that is where we can have the biggest impact.By coming together, Easton College, near Norwich and Otley College near Ipswich, have gone from being two local colleges to a large regional college. What is the long-term vision for the new college and how will the merger benefit students in East Anglia and beyond?
It’s all about focussing on the industries’ needs and the only way we can try and deliver some of the very specialist work that is needed (eg arable crop production, agricultural engineering and the pig and poultry sectors) within current levels of Government funding – was to create a greater geographical area to recruit viable numbers of students. It’s very early days but I do feel we are making some progress with this and we are making progress in terms of capital investment.
It’s been a very positive experience for my colleagues and me, as putting two colleges together has ended up with more than just the sum of the parts. The relationship and range of expertise we now have is at a different level and allows us to do more than we could as individual institutions. These are very tough decisions (merging) – but from an industries’ point of view it was a very easy decision to make in terms of meeting their needs. Tell us a little more about Easton and Otley; your typical students and an overview of the courses the college provides?
We don’t have a typical student as such – our courses are varied and so are the students who study with us.
We teach from 14 years of age and we get learners who study on some of our leisure courses in their eighties upwards.
As a new college, we teach around 5,000 students and also offer higher education qualifications in conjunction with the University of East Anglia and University Campus Suffolk.
Over 600 Apprentices are currently working in industry thanks to the Easton and Otley College work-based learning programme.
This figure is set to expand as the college is keen to develop solid working relationships with businesses throughout the UK and beyond, to help ensure that all students taught at the college are getting the right type of training that will allow them to hit the ground running when they finish education and begin their careers. (Easton and Otley College has also been involved in a specific scheme called EDGE that aims to encourage 300 new agricultural apprentices into industry by 2015).
Alongside land-based opportunities in further education, we also teach a range of other courses including animal studies; arboriculture; conservation; construction; distance learning; engineering; fisheries; floristry; gamekeeping; horse studies; management; pre-foundation studies; the Prince’s Trust programme; public services; sport and teacher training.
In addition to this, learners can also learn new subjects for fun on the college leisure learning programme. Professional qualifications can also be gained by participating in commercial courses.It seems that 2012 was quite a year for you – an OBE for your services to land-based education in East Anglia (congratulations!), you became president of the Royal Norfolk Show and you were named principal of Easton and Otley College. What have you got planned for the remainder of 2013 and beyond!?
Thank you – it’s been quite a year.
In terms of the rest of the year and beyond, the key target is to ensure that we do deliver on the skills agenda. The future of our industry and ability to feed ourselves relies on us doing so.