August 9, 2014

Agricultural education in NZ. 1. Better ways needed for future learning


By Dr Clive Dalton

Future demand for trained staff
The Minister of Primary Industry expects New Zealand agriculture to double export earnings by 2025, which will be in a climate of relentless costs rises, increasing international competition from subsidised farmers, and increasing food safety standards. There were no instructions from the politicians as to how this could be done.  

To achieve this goal, the Minister’s other prediction was we’d need 50,000 new recruits at all levels of the industry (see comment later regarding this figure).  To get anywhere near these targets – in my view, we’ll need a revolution in primary industry education.  At the moment, our teaching is in the dark ages.

Change will have to start with massive changes in ‘learning’, which in turn will need a bombshell under current ways of ‘teaching’, because today’s learners are tomorrow’s farmers and investors, and they are going to have to be smarter in all aspects of business and technology than ever was dreamed of before.

This is because predicting what new information primary industry will need by 2025 can only be guesswork.  Nobody right now would have any idea. What we can predict with any certainty is that we are facing a rapidly changing world, with the speed of change increasing daily.  It’s a case of change, innovate, or go under.   Survival depends on ‘education’ and ‘innovation’, and the present New Zealand primary education situation won’t meet the Minister’s 2025 targets without rapid change.

Too many trainers
For a start, the current NZ primary education scene is a dog’s breakfast of providers and trainers, all offering courses to complete the same NZQA units, and many competing in each others' back yards for EFTS (Effective Full Time Students) which is simply a competition to get bums on seats to keep the organisations in business.  If the 50,000 people target has to be met by 2025, under the current setup, this silly competition needs to be ditched and sorted out at government level.

Classic proof of this nonsense was a piece in the NZ Farmers Weekly, September 29, 2014 by Rebecca Harper about new developments at Taratahi with the title 'Passion to produce quality workers'.  Quote: 'Taratahi seems to be everywhere these days. The residential campus is based near Masterton with non-residential campuses in Northland, Rodney, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Hawke's Bay, Manawatu, Wairarapa and Southland.' How stupid is that?

 My attempt to list courses and providers
I stress that this is an 'attempt'! I must have spent  hours searching websites of the main organisations, trying to find out what they did. Some are so full of 'bells and whistles' that getting answers to simple questions is not a feature they have tested before launching them.  So don't rely on my list as being accurate - as I gave up in the end. 

There should be an accurate list like this somewhere though. It certainly illustrates my point about 'teaching in each others' back yards.  Can you imagine how hard it must be for careers' teachers to give a student advice?  I tell any who ask me to always phone their nearest PrimaryITO office and not try to decipher this lot for a student.

Agriculture New Zealand. 
PTE owned by PGGWrightson.  Accredited for NZQA to deliver approved training at levels 1-6. 
Courses: Dairy, beef, sheep, deer
Locations: Sites throughout NZ for range of organisations (e.g. Landcorp).
Cost:  Paid in full by participants

Aoraki Polytechnic, Timaru.
PTE. Accredited for NZQA to deliver approved training Units at levels 2 -6.
Also Lincoln University Diploma in Agriculture (not NZQA Units).
Main Courses: Dairy, beef, sheep, deer and others
Locations: South Island centres and Online
Cost: Paid in full by students

Information from Mile Parr, Primary Portfolio Tutor.  For the Lincoln Regional Diploma in Agriculture, all the learning material is in a 'course textbook' and the students have access to the web-site.  The Polytechnic offers a support tutorial class for the enrolled students, run any tests, labs and final exams for local regional students of Lincoln.
Dairy Training Ltd (DTL).
Dairy Training Ltd (arm of DairyNZ) delivers training for the dairy industry.
Accredited for NZQA to deliver Units at levels 2 -6.
Main courses:
Locations: Sites throughout NZ except bottom of South Island.
Cost: Paid half by employer and half by government. Participant may refund employer.

PTE. Accredited for NZQA Units level 2.
Main Courses: Dairy farming and range of general subjects.
Locations:  Waikato centres, South Auckland and Christchurch
Cost: No fees. Paid by government.

Telford Farm Training Institute
PTE. Accredited for NZQA Units level 2-6.
Lincoln University Diploma in Agriculture (non NZQA Units).
Location: Balclutha and correspondence courses.
Cost: Paid in full by participant.

Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre
PTE. Accredited for NZQA Units level 2-6.
Lincoln and Massey University Diploma in Agriculture (non NZQA Units).
Main courses: Dairy, beef, sheep, deer and others.
Location: Masterton, Rodney (Auckland), Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Northland.
Cost:  Paid in full by participant.

Waipoa Farm Cadet Training Trust.
PTE Accredited with NZQA Units level 2 ?.
Two year residential.
Main courses:  Beef, sheep, shearing.
Location: Gisborne
Fees:  Paid in full by participant.

Smedley Station and Cadet training Farm
PTE Accredited with NZQA Units at level 2 ?.
Two year residential.
Main courses: Beef, sheep, shearing.
Location: Central Hawke’s Bay
Fees: Paid in full by participant.

High schools
Courses taught by approved NZQA providers covering NZQA Units 2
S.T.A.R courses as tasters

 In the stupid competitive environment set up under government policy in the 1980s, the drive was to get as many EFTSs as possible. The Waikato Polytech Dairy Farm Trainee (DFT) course I taught for new entrants counted as 0.6 of an EFTS.  The course was ideal for farmers  with students starting at the Polytech in late January, to be ready for calving on June 1.  Farmers claimed it was an excellent qualification for their needs, and operated for years before it had to be changed to NZQA Units.

Our bureaucrats then started dreaming up ways to ‘stretch’ an EFTS, by giving students written assignments to do on the farm (during calving believe it or not!), and then come back to class for more lectures immediately after calving to claim a full EFTS from government.  It was going to be easy money for the Polytech, but was crazy as it was the last thing farmers wanted, as work didn’t stop after calving.  But then the bureaucrats had never done a calving, and the last people to be consulted were employers!  It was all about keeping the Polytech in business.

But it got worse. Certificates from Polytechs were then stretched into Diplomas, and Diplomas stretched into degrees!  Polytechs giving degrees in my view was bad enough, but then higher degrees were even offered, which made a total mockery because in agriculture, Polytechs didn’t have research facilities or qualified staff to meet the academic standards required.

No market research
Providers never appeared to do any market research to check demand before setting up teaching facilities, and just expected students to turn up. Then if they didn’t, the institutions complained to the government, or anybody else who they hoped would bail them out with more money.  Lincoln University has just done this.

Lincoln has itself to blame, with the current Vice Chancellor appointing three assistant VCs as soon as he got there. The whole situation should never have been allowed to get this way, with students/learners being the ones to suffer by having to face rising fees, massive loans and questionable teaching standards, from dwindling staff who were made redundant to help meet the bills.  Lincoln should have remained a college of the University of Canterbury and stuck to it’s old and highly respected core business.  Now it’s part of a much lauded ‘hub’ to add more complications to it’s future.

And now Lincoln University starting to teach their agricultural qualifications, do research, and provide industry demonstrations on the farm of St Peter’s school in Cambridge, which makes no sense for them to spend their reducing money in the Waikato.  It’s a great idea to get high school students interested in agriculture at an early age, but the local DairyNZ staff and the Waikato University agribusiness faculty could have provided all the help the school needed, all under the supervision of the PrimaryITO.  St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton is doing just this, using local support to promote agribusiness.

Dollars wasted
The Waikato Polytech where I worked from 1993-2000 must have wasted hundreds of thousands of tax payer’ dollars on ‘memoranda of understanding’ with other NZ Polytechs, and opening ‘campuses’ in other locations in competition with the local teaching organisations. 

The cost of the many trips by bureaucrats and senior staff to China and India to do the same fortunately is well buried and forgotten. They all came to naught.  Nobody got the chop of course, as it was government policy and was encouraged, and it still seems to be going on.  The Waikato Polytech (now Wintec) ended up closing their formal agriculture (and equine) courses some years ago, which shows how much they understood industry needs in the region – which is what Polytechs were supposed to be good at!

At one stage the Waikato Polytechnic bureaucrats worked on a deal for us to teach the long-established and much revered Massey Diploma in Agriculture to tap the local market.  I was asked (wearing my Ph.D.) to make a few trips to Massey to talk to their key staff involved in the Diploma, where it soon became obvious that there was no way we had the qualified staff or the facilities to teach the Massey Dip.  I got very stressed on return, trying to get this simple fact through to the bureaucrats, (especially our Dean), who had little idea about agriculture or the respect the Massey Diploma had gained in the farming community over 70+ years.

Our bureaucrats were clearly not concerned about the quality of education, and only about getting more local bums on seats. To my great relief, the idea died a natural death, after wasting what must have been many thousands of taxpayers’ dollars. The bureaucrats moved on to their next pie in the sky which was overseas students.

Distance learning
In the early days of the internet in education, too many NZ teaching institutions (especially Polytechs), and not just in agriculture, initially saw ‘distance learning’ as a cheap way to earn more fees from more students for less work, with no proof of clients getting value for money. They just didn’t put enough support into it – probably because they didn’t appreciate at that stage what was involved.

Organisations designing ‘distant learning’ options didn’t realise how much work had to go into preparing top-notch material, and the support needed to go along with it.  It wasn’t just mailing out printed lecture notes, handouts and PowerPoint slides.  This happened with a friend who in 2012 did a post graduate teaching Diploma from a noted NZ University, where she was charged the same fees as students who attended daily lectures.  She was ripped off for sure.

The New Zealand Uni boffins have been slow to learn from major world universities in UK and the USA currently providing on-line programmes at no cost which receive plenty of compliments from users I have talked to - and who all want to do more! This is becoming a booming business and can only grow with the power of the Internet for generations who have been weaned on to technology. New Zealand needs to take a giant leap forward into this.

As far as using modern technology is concerned, primary education in New Zealand is still an antiquated bureaucratic muddle. 

Memorable tutors
I love asking students I meet about their lecturers, tutors, supervisors and teaching methods being used, to see how things have changed since my years of suffering as a Farm Institute and then University student, and then inflicting more pain on others in my 8 years as a University lecturer, and 7 years as a Polytech tutor – getting my own back! 

Clearly little has changed since the ancient Greeks invented the lecture where literate teachers informed illiterate audiences. If you attend any public talk or lecture today, where the majority will be using ‘death by PowerPoint’, you’ll see that nothing has changed.  The speaker puts up a PP slide and then reads it to the audience – who can all read for themselves.  The sad thing is that none of us in the audience complains – we sit there checking our watches, our brains miles away thinking about something different.  Research has shown that it’s mainly sex!  A friend suggested that we should all read aloud the words on the slides with the lecturer.

 With all the resources now on the Internet, and with all that could be added to assist agricultural learning, the chances of learning in a small group at an interactive computer screen must be thousands of times better than listening to a lecturer moaning on for hours.

What's your tutor's name?
Regularly, students I ask only know their tutors’ first name, and Uni students I talk to rarely know the name of their HOD or Dean, and certainly they have never met their Vice Chancellor or CEO.  One management student recently, majoring in Human Resources (who failed my ‘who is your HOD’ test), told me that they get visits from important guest lecturers – but when asked she couldn’t remember their names.  Then she reassured me they get a lot of information from the Internet – which did not inspire my confidence.

Clearly the top brass never sit in on random lectures, or pop into the cafeteria to chat and sample their wares.  They are probably in meetings with  hired consultants who have never stood in front of a class.

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