Leader: Education must reflect changes in rural workforce

March 16, 2001

Much has changed in the British countryside in recent years. The foot-and-mouth epidemic will mean more and faster reforms. In turn, this will probably mean a smaller and more heavily educated countryside workforce.

It turns out, however, that the agricultural colleges that provide this education have failed in many cases to respond to the challenges that they now face. Student numbers are in decline, as is the central funding that supports them. Their income from farm activities was on the way down even before the outbreak.

The figures that have emerged during the foot-and-mouth crisis reinforce the case that farming is one of the less significant rural activities in turnover terms and as an employer. Tourism, commuting or working in the local town are all more significant; in many areas massively so.

Agricultural colleges whose main aim is the production of farmers cannot expect to attract students - or to remain as vital parts of their local communities. For some, merger with another institution is likely to be the best option, despite the problems that have become evident thus far. In universities with agriculture departments, both sides gain from shared teaching and scholarship.

But there might also be a case for some agricultural colleges to be centres for expansion rather than relocation or retrenchment. Some have responded to the changing nature of farming by teaching conservation and tourism. Topics such as small-scale manufacturing, telecommuting business and even retirement skills - one of the real growth industries of the countryside - might add up to a mix that would mean a real future for colleges that would otherwise face the prospect of competing with universities and each other for a dwindling pool of students. With the end of the Further Education Funding Council, some experiments in creating such institutions might be a useful initiative for the new regional development agencies and learning and skills councils.

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