Crises in farming have hit agricultural colleges, with slumps in applications from students and falling profits from college farms.
As rows over genetically modified crops rumbled on in the UK and farmers marched on Brussels this week to protest against proposed reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy, colleges said students are increasingly seeking courses away from the food sector.
All three specialist agricultural colleges funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England - Harper Adams, Writtle and Wye - showed drops in applications in The THES's recent table of confidential figures compiled by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. (Writtle disputes the figures, saying that applications are likely to have fallen by less than 5 per cent, if at all, rather than 19 per cent.) The privately run Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, where applications are holding steady but profits are falling at its college farms, has placed more emphasis on rural business administration and expects this side to grow further in future.
And in further education, financial problems, changing methods of student support and mergers have lead to staff lay-offs and industrial disputes.
The further and higher education funding councils in England have both set up inquiries into the future of agriculture teaching. Reports are due in the spring.
A HEFCE spokesman said it was studying provision at Wye, Harper Adams and Writtle to assess the costs of agriculture teaching as part of a general look at the cost of each specific subject.
Professor Karl Linklater, acting principal of the Scottish Agricultural College, where applications have fallen by more than per cent, said: "A lot of our students come from family farms, and their manpower is required on the farm. Young people and their parents are also wondering whether there is a future in agriculture and whether it is worth training."
Wynne Jones, principal of Harper Adams, where applications have dropped more than 20 per cent, said: "The debate about farming and food issues is having a negative effect on student attitudes." He said there are too many agriculture courses and there must be some rationalisation.
But he, like many other principals, stressed that employment prospects remain good for those students who choose to study agriculture and related studies.
He said the college had taught issues relating to organic farming for many years and was introducing an organic module for postgraduate students. But higher education had to look to the long term and concentrate on imparting transferable skills rather than specific farming knowledge.
"The current things being discussed, like organic farming, are relevant to the UK, but in other parts of the world there are real food-shortage issues. We have to look at sustainability of agricultural food supply in an environmentally responsible manner."
David Furmston, director of curriculum at Broomfield College, said the college's organic farm is making more profit than the conventional farm. However, because of overall problems in funding, Broomfield is in the process of laying off 31 of its 34 academic staff and asking them to reapply for their jobs with a salary cut of up to 30 per cent.
Andy Marley, chairman of the agricultural section at university and college lecturers' union Natfhe, said that more than 17 posts were going at De Montfort University, where he teaches, with one person facing compulsory redundancy.
He said colleges countrywide face problems because of higher administration costs since taking over from local authorities, falling profits in farming enterprises and student poverty in rural areas. Many are responding by bringing in new types of students - such as farm employees - and different kinds of rural activities, such as managing golf courses.
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