Principal sets out agri-skills challenge

19 April 2010

On a visit to Northern Ireland at the weekend, Dr David Llewellyn, Principal of Harper Adams University College, outlined the latest developments in policies relating to higher education and skills development in the agri-food sector.

Dr Llewellyn, speaking at a lunch with the Guild of Agricultural Journalists, highlighted the need to “join up” national efforts to improve food security and some of the latest thinking on UK higher education provision.

He said:
“In January, the Government launched its Food 2030  Strategy, which set out a framework to increase sustainable food production by 50% by 2030 in the light of a number of global challenges, including a fast growing world population and climate change.  It was clear that although these are global issues, the UK will not be immune, facing as we do our own concerns about the prospect of climate change and a population set to grow to 71.6m by 2033 . 

"In January, the Government also launched the UK Cross-Government Food Research and Innovation Strategy  which reported serious shortfalls in high-level skills within the agri-food sector, including in agronomy, livestock science and food production.  A recent report of the Land Use Foresight Panel  highlighted the prospect of conflicting priorities for land use, water supply, conservation and the increasingly fine balance required between increasing agricultural production and environmental management, all of which will require the attention of highly skilled people in the period to 2060.  The major political parties have suggested that science and agriculture need to go hand in hand to address these issues and, in turn, that high level skills will be required to deliver our food requirements whilst protecting the environment for future generations.

“Given the priority placed by Government on improving food production through the use of science and technology, it might be expected that higher education policy makers would have seen the need for this subject area to be supported in the same way that, with the backing of organisations representing employers, other subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been given a degree of priority in recent years. 

"But, the UK higher education strategy , published last November, was silent on the issue of food security and, furthermore, a recent report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills  has placed the development of skills in agriculture and food production, based on its assessment of their future economic impact, near the bottom of a table for priority attention in the period to 2017.  This flies in the face of sector-based evidence that there are significant skills shortages, and skills gaps, in agriculture and food production that need to be addressed.  LANTRA estimates, for example, that the land-based industries will require up to 60,000 new entrants over the next ten years , whilst the position in the food sector is equally as serious.  The BBSRC has identified a need to encourage the development of a new generation of scientists able to translate research into practice, in the face of significant concerns about an ageing science-based workforce and a relative shortage of UK graduates undertaking postgraduate qualifications in land-based subjects.  As Achim Dobermann, deputy director general of research at the International Rice Research Institute put it in the leading journal Nature , “We need more people who can think and act in a systems framework, putting all the good science together into practical solutions for farmers”.

“The divergence of policy between our need to boost food production and higher education needs to be addressed to provide a degree of assurance that whichever Government comes to power in May, food security, and skills development in the agri-food sector, will continue to be seen as priorities for investment. 

"The good news is that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has recognised the importance of land-based subjects in recent years and is working with universities and colleges to make sure that growing student demand for land-based courses can be met through a recent initiative to increase student intakes in 2010, though beyond that point the picture is much less clear.  Other parts of the UK need to be encouraged to take a similarly bold step to ensure that provision is protected and enhanced in what is likely to be a difficult higher education funding climate in the next few years.

“The agri-food sector has also been active in producing its own cross-industry skills development strategy, showing that there is a willingness, on the part of industry, to recognise that skills development will be an important factor in tackling food security.

“But there is a need for all parts of the sector, from industry leaders to those in education, to continue to press home the message to the new Government that to deliver the key objectives of Food 2030, highly skilled people will be needed, that they are already in short supply and that there are relatively few UK higher education institutions with the resources and expertise able to help fill the gaps that could quickly emerge if action is not taken now. 

"The consequences of missing this opportunity are stark, not only for the future capacity and capabilities of the agri-food sector to handle new innovations in science and technology, but for the consequences that a shortage in appropriate skills in sustainable food production, and a well resourced and practically focussed science base, could mean for the future availability of UK-based food supplies, consumer choice, and wider issues of concern to UK society such as the health and well-being of our growing population.”

  See http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/food/strategy/
  See http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1352
  See http://www.dius.gov.uk/Policies/go-science
  See http://www.foresight.gov.uk/OurWork/ActiveProjects/LandUse/LandUse.asp
  See http://www.bis.gov.uk/Policies/higher-education/shape-and-structure/higher-ambitions
  See http://www.ukces.org.uk//upload/pdf/NSSA_Volume%201_FINAL_BOOKMARKED_110310.pdf
  See http://www.lantra.co.uk/stakeholders/research-documents/skills-assessment/
  See http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2010/100304/full/nj7285-128a.html

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