Best foot forward for farm colleges

January 4, 2002

Agricultural colleges have accelerated moves towards diversification and rationalisation in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis, which was officially declared over this week.

Steps that college managers were already taking to broaden and modernise provision have become a vital part of efforts to ensure their institutions' survival.

Most colleges in the sector, which spans further and higher education, had courses and other important educational, promotional and fundraising activities severely disrupted or completely shut down for several months during the height of the crisis.

According to the Association of Land-Based Colleges (NAPAEO), the short-term financial cost has run into several millions.

Institutions have put in claims for compensation to the Learning and Skills Council, which has asked consultants to assess the impact. Colleges with a large proportion of higher education provision have asked funding council chiefs to "show some understanding" for the next two years.

But college heads acknowledge that to survive in the longer term, their institutions will need to move away from traditional agriculture into areas such as sport and leisure, horticulture, environmental studies and landscape gardening. Some expect to be able to manage the transition independently, but others will be looking to merge with a larger institution to help broaden their curriculum and spread their costs.

Howard Petch, executive director of the NAPAEO, believes agricultural colleges have reacted positively to the crisis and are therefore in a strong position to bounce back.

"There are changes going on in the rural environment, and I would like to say that most of our colleges are responding to that. While there is a sense in which there is a crisis, most of our colleges are responding to it in a very innovative way," he said.

An example of the colleges' resourcefulness, he said, was their swift reaction to recruitment problems arising from the foot-and-mouth crisis. Most colleges were forced to close recruitment events but managed to keep recruitment losses down to about 3 per cent by increasing marketing efforts and budgets.

Many commercial activities such as conferences were disrupted. Mr Petch explained: "For some colleges that commercial income is quite significant, and all of that ceased for a period of several months."

The impact of the disease on individual colleges varied across the country, depending on these commercial factors and how close each institution was to local outbreaks. Wynne Jones, principal of Harper Adams University College, described the crisis as "the straw that broke the camel's back" in terms of recruitment to courses.

He said: "Around half of our students are sons and daughters of farmers. But the mood of down-beatedness and depression in the industry is just turning them away. It's a tragedy because we have a food and farming industry that is worth £120 billion, but that industry will soon be in a manpower shortage situation."

Professor Jones said his college had lost about £300,000 in income and some of its existing students as well as suffering about a 10 per cent drop in recruitment.

"The students will not tell you they are leaving because things at home are dire, but the financial hardship in the farming industry has meant that some students have not continued in higher education," he said.

The dairy farm at the Cumbria campus of the University of Central Lancashire was one of the first to be hit by the disease and was closed by the government.

It lost 1,000 animals and had its boundaries redefined by the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods, which also demanded that an 8ft-high fence be erected around its perimeter.

Norman Burrow, director of the campus, said the total impact on finances and recruitment was still being assessed. But he thought foot-and-mouth was more likely to speed up changes already under way in colleges, rather than bring about a sudden shift in direction.

He said: "I do not think that foot-and-mouth will bring about any new ideas. What it will do is put higher up on the agenda the idea of diversification and sustainable use of the land. For instance, a few years ago diploma students would just come to learn about how to breed cattle and maximise milk yield. In my view in the future it would be quite inappropriate for us to run courses as narrow as that."

Malcolm Wharton, principal of Hartbury College near Gloucester, said he thought the road ahead was tough, but still full of opportunities if colleges were prepared to make the necessary changes.

"Colleges can be the focus for rural regeneration. But we are going to have to work exceptionally hard to attract students for future years," he said.

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