University fee cut for agriculture courses prompts warning that education quality might suffer


Universities from around Australia are warning that cheap fees for agriculture courses will make it easier for students to finance their study, but could result in lower quality education.

Under a Federal Government plan, the cost of studying most humanities subjects at university would double, but the cost slashed for students of what the Government deems to be “job-relevant” courses.

Professor Iain Young, Dean of Science at the University of Sydney and past president of the Deans of Agriculture, said the reduced contribution from students would leave a gap between what the universities get to deliver the course and the actual cost.

“Agriculture will be worse off by $3,500, environmental studies roughly $10,000 a year and science overall will be worse off by $4,759 per year per student.”

The issue is partly due to the high cost of delivering courses in agriculture and science.

“Things like labs, practicals are the high-cost things that will probably fall off because it becomes harder and harder to teach,” said Professor Young.

Professor Iain Young is concerned about the fee cuts and the impact it might have on the quality of education in agriculture.(Supplied: University of Sydney)

Professor Young is concerned that the changes will not improve agricultural and science education.

“It actually means it will cost more for the university to teach them, so it’s the opposite of what the Government is trying to do.”

While there is a commitment from the Federal Government to maintain funding at current levels until 2023, the universities are not clear what will happen after that, according to Professor Young.

“There is $200m earmarked for the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund, but that may not be enough for universities to maintain the labs, field trips and provide the specialist equipment necessary for science-based courses.”

Universities may change the way they deliver courses

Professor Wayne Hein, the head of Animal and Veterinary Science at the University of Adelaide, was more cautious about the likely impact of the changes on the quality of agricultural education.

He thinks universities will adapt.

“The way that universities manage that normally, is to complement a deficit in one program area from other parts of the business,” Professor Hein said.

“I don’t think that it necessarily leads to a reduction in quality; it will probably lead to some rethinking of how courses are delivered.”

Professor Hein said the decrease in fees was a move in the right direction and would hopefully address a “slight downward trend” in the number of students studying agriculture.

“Each year there are probably 50 to 60 new students entering the agriculture stream, it has been a little on the decline,” Professor Hein said.

“I think as an incentive to help students start a career in agriculture, this is a good development.”

Demand for agriculture graduates very high

University students in red lab coats in a laboratory in the University of Sydney
The cost of running agricultural science courses is high due to the need to fund laboratories, specialised equipment and field trips.(Supplied: University of Sydney)

Interim Director of the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture at UTAS Michael Rose said there would be more places in the system and job prospects remain very strong based on last year’s results.

But he is also concerned about the long-term outlook given the pressure universities face due to the absence of a large number of international students and the income they provide.

Mr Rose said no decisions had been made at UTAS about cost-cutting.

“There has been no discussion about staff numbers, and while the university is looking to control its costs, I’m not sure how that will pan out.”



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