THE dwindling number of university graduates associated with farming should be sending warning bells to the State Government.
That's the opinion of Muresk Old Collegians Association (MOCA) president and Pingelly farmer John Hassell, who this week called on the government to restore Muresk to a centre of learning excellence.
"Investing right now in education to get more graduates is crucial because of the long lead-times involved," he said. "We need at least 400 graduates a year but there are now less than 50 a year graduating from all WA universities.
"The industry needs Muresk more than ever and it must be part of government's strategic plan for investing in tertiary agribusiness education.
"One key performance indicator is graduation completion numbers and the downward spiral is as plain as the nose on your face - it spells disaster".
According to MOCA secretary Roy Duncanson, $10.5m Royalties for Regions funding for Muresk in the last budget is already mostly committed.
"It will only put Muresk on a care and maintenance basis, with the odd tenant here and there tiding things over," he said.
"It is not what anyone could call a plan of substance.
"It also means the State Government sees it as a small regional issue, not a State-wide, globally competitive economic development issue.
"That is the fate of the once-best agribusiness degree course in the nation.
"It's time for a vision of substance for WA agribusiness rather than politicians gas-bagging on about an exciting future for Muresk.
"It's just another placation exercise to keep voters happy at election time.
"The Muresk issue has never been properly resolved since Curtin University first announced its intention to take its bat and go home in September 2009.
"The government had stacks of notice to prepare an alternative strategy to maintain a centre of excellence for our future farmers and agribusiness leaders but it has dropped the ball.
"Muresk now falls under the new Minister for Training and Workforce Development Murray Cowper and he has yet to make any announcements on Muresk's future since becoming a Minister.
"It is easy to work out what industry wants, so why are there large industry skills shortfalls now?
"It is simply because of the disconnect between what industry needs to really drive wealth-creation in our economy and public education and training institutions not being realistically funded for meeting those needs.
"So every institution is downgrading ag education and simply investing their efforts elsewhere. "The only system that exists now is the advisory committee system and clearly that has failed many key industries in most cases."
Mr Hassell said now was the time to re-think a vision for WA agribusiness.
"All governments throughout Australia should be building agribusiness as the next economic development powerhouse," he said.
"Yet, you'd be excused for thinking they'd just prefer to sell off the farm to foreign investors.
"Regardless of how the ag education and Muresk issues ebb and flow over the next few years, MOCA is now dealing with the crucial issue of the dysfunction between Federal and State responsibilities when it comes to industry education and training.
"The State owns most of the physical assets and the Commonwealth provides most of the funding.
"But nobody is actually accountable for ensuring the education and training institutions actually provide the things industry needs.
"The historically large skills shortfalls being experienced by mining, agriculture and tourism all attest to that.
"MOCA will now act to get all governments to adopt funding performance indicators to measure their own performance in delivering to meet industry needs for skilled graduates.
"And that means, when industries need them, not years down the track."
According to Mr Hassell, mining industry investment is topping out and investors are looking to diversify investment portfolios.
"Muresk is turning out to be WA's economic litmus test, so what the WA Government does there, really matters right now," he said.
"There are real opportunities for farmers and agribusiness out there, which is not lost on foreign investors, but surely foreign investment can't be the only answer.
"It is time to stimulate growth elsewhere and time to look at the health of agribusiness which is our second biggest industry in the nation.
"The agricultural sector was the only sector that saved WA after the last couple of busts.
"The question is, has WA learnt from its history that the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust?"