RECENTLY announced plans for a new agribusiness degree at Curtin University have been met with a mixed response, with concerns the course could lead to the demise of an industry-backed course run at the Muresk Institute.
The new two-year Associate Degree was announced by Education and Training Minister Sue Ellery last week, and will be open from 2019.
The associate degree will be a pathway to the three-year Bachelor of Agribusiness offered at Curtin University.
Ms Ellery said the course would offer flexible delivery modes, including face-to-face teaching at Curtin University and the Muresk Institute.
“An Associate Degree in Agribusiness at Muresk shows this government’s commitment to growing the agricultural skills of our students,” Ms Ellery said.
“The agricultural industry offers the State an opportunity to diversify the economy to create more jobs.
“The new course will include face-to-face teaching at Muresk and Curtin’s Bentley campus, with relevant hands-on and practical experience.
“The announcement of Curtin University returning to the Muresk campus is a win for students and the agricultural industry.”
Ms Ellery said the State government would not be providing funding for Curtin’s associate degree, and confirmed it would cease providing supplementary funding to support the three-year Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management (BABM) at the Muresk Institute.
The BABM course is a Charles Sturt University (CSU) degree that has been offered through Central Regional TAFE (CRT) at Muresk for the past three and a half years.
It was introduced at the Muresk Institute following Curtin University’s transferal of its Bachelor of Agribusiness degree from Muresk to its Bentley campus in 2012.
The CSU course was supported by $20 million in Royalties for Regions funding allocated to cover a proportion of the operational costs for a period of three years, which has now ended.
Following a review of the BABM degree commissioned by the former State government last year, Ms Ellery said CSU’s course was unviable for continued funding.
The minister confirmed the agreement between CRT and CSU has been terminated under the instruction of the managing director of CRT.
Ms Ellery said CSU could continue its BABM course without State government funding, and students already enrolled in the degree would be able to complete their studies.
“If Charles Sturt University wants to continue to provide its course through Muresk Institute beyond 2017 it is entitled to do so and I would encourage it to,” Ms Ellery said.
“We have worked hard to offer an agriculture course for 2019 that is viable into the future, the previous State government had inaccurate projected enrolments in its original business case and therefore unrealistic revenue targets.
“To make my decision I relied upon an independent evaluation of the BABM degree at Muresk, this report identified consistent risks with the financial viability of the course.”
At the time Farm Weekly went to press, it was unclear if Charles Sturt University would continue to run the BABM degree at the Muresk Institute, or whether prospective students would be able to enrol next year or beyond.
More than 280 students expressed interest in the course for 2018, with more than 70 rating themselves likely or very likely to enrol.
Farm Weekly understands a new agreement would have to be arranged in order for the BABM course to continue.
Delivery of the BABM course began in 2014, with 21 students signing up full-time for its first semester.
Enrolments in the BABM course rose to 28 in semester one of 2016, despite a slump in enrolments in 2015 due the half-year cohort.
However, only nine students enrolled in semester one of 2017, with technical issues with online enrolment believed to have played a significant role.
The CRT online enrolment system began experiencing difficulties from November last year, with the problem only resolved this month.
Other difficulties with enrolment in the CSU course were highlighted in a report commissioned by the previous State government at the end of last year.
The report identified CSU’s inability to be listed in the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre (TISC) course guide as a major prohibitor.
Muresk Old Collegians’ Association Incorporated (MOCA) board member Anna Kennedy said the cost of listing the CSU course in the TISC book was unaffordable for a small course.
Ms Kennedy said this was a major disadvantage for CSU, with prospective students having to dig far deeper to access enrolment for the BABM degree.
“The thing is that kids at this time of the year are ticking a button on the TISC system,” Ms Kennedy said.
“They don’t have to do much on the TISC system to apply to where they want to go, yet to go to CSU it’s a bigger challenge to get there.”
The report also attributed lower than expected enrolment numbers, increased competition from other WA universities offering agriculture degrees, as well as a perceived lack of confidence in the State government to maintain the degree-based qualification at Muresk, with funding ending at the end of 2016.
It is unclear how much time students will spend at the Muresk Campus as part of Curtin’s associate degree, with a course outline yet to be developed.
Curtin University vice chancellor Deborah Terry said the university was pleased to be returning to the Muresk campus, and would be consulting with industry to create an appropriate course.
“Curtin has a strong history and commitment to teaching and research in agriculture in WA and is focused on growing our agriculture research base, developing skills for the agriculture and food sectors and supporting growth within the sector, Ms Terry said.
“We see the delivery of the Associate Degree in Agribusiness as part of this commitment.
“To ensure this course meets contemporary industry needs, it is imperative it is developed in close consultation with industry.”
Former president of the Agribusiness Alumni Association and former Muresk director Ian Fairnie said industry was happy with CSU’s BABM degree and had contributed more than $100,000 in scholarships to support the course.
Mr Fairnie said a two-year course was not desired by industry, but he hoped that Curtin would consult closely with key stakeholders throughout the course development process to ensure graduates were job ready.
“Discussions that were held with the agribusiness industry only a few years ago indicated that there was no interest in employing two year associate degree graduates, that the minimum requirement was a three year bachelor’s degree,” Mr Fairnie said.
“Having listened to the industry, and after ascertaining that no WA university was interested in developing the graduates the industry wanted, the advisory committee I chaired at the time recommended that Muresk host the three-year CSU degree course in Agricultural Business management, this course produced its first graduates in 2016.
“This year also saw the first graduates hit the market and all were snapped up, but the demand is much greater.
“I’m really hoping Curtin will consult with the agribusiness industry and create a program that will meet the needs of industry.
“If that means two years at Muresk and one year elsewhere to lead to a Bachelor’s degree, then that may be an acceptable compromise, but industry must give the verdict on that.”
The Nationals WA leader Mia Davies has also criticised the decision, saying more time should have been given to the CSU course before it was abandoned by the State government.
“So much effort by the previous government, industry and employees has gone into re-establishing the campus as a centre for excellence in agriculture, but this has clearly been lost on a minister whose focus is elsewhere,” Ms Davies said.
“Charles Sturt University stepped up where others refused to engage and while there have been some challenges, they are not insurmountable.
“No one is arguing for perpetual funding – but they do require some additional funding to enable student numbers to reach a sustainable level.”
Ms Davies said she would need to be convinced that Curtin University was committed to Muresk, given its withdrawal from Muresk in 2012.
“Every Western Australian university had the opportunity to work with government to establish a degree level course, on-campus, meeting the needs of industry and students – but they chose not to,” she said.
“The two-year associate degree will no doubt require students to spend part of their studies at Curtin’s Bentley campus in Perth, detracting from their ability to complete quality tertiary education in a regional setting.”