St Paul's Centre of Excellence for Agri-Studies

May 2015

A pilot programme to address the need for more graduates in the agri-business sector

Demand from parents for ag/hort courses has led St Pauls Collegiate School in Hamilton to reintroduce the NCEA course and, along with DairyNZ, NZ Beef & Lamb and 10 other private sector organisations, to begin to develop and trial a new agribusiness curriculum aimed at attracting tertiary capable students. The expectation is that more secondary students will go on to tertiary ag/hort and related studies and thus begin to meet the industry’s dire need for many more graduates.

Secondary school AgHort Science courses have in the past often been viewed as appropriate for less able students and/or those wanting to go farming and not intending to pursue tertiary qualifications. Early this century the NZ Qualifications Authority took the subject off the University Scholarship list. Not surprisingly, the number of students taking AgHort Science at level 3 in Year 13 dwindled to about 500 in 2012. By contrast, 800 took French and 8000 or more studied Chemistry and Biology.

This is a sorry state of affairs considering that agriculture and land-based industries account for around 70% of New Zealand’s overseas income and directly or indirectly employ a large percentage of the workforce – about 66,000 in sheep, beef and dairy farming alone. DairyNZ estimates that each year around 1250 university graduates are required to meet the needs of the industry, yet in 2011 there were only 68 AgHort Science graduates and 90 Farm and Agribusiness Management graduates from NZ universities.

In 2012 a survey of parents by the Board of St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton highlighted the desire for agricultural and horticultural courses to be offered at the School. Deputy Headmaster Academic Peter Hampton says that AgHort Science as a subject was reintroduced at Year 11 level in 2012 and subsequently was offered for Year 12 and Year 13 classes.

“Early in 2013 a think tank of industry leaders in the agricultural sector got together to talk about what they could do to start engaging young people in the amazing number of careers and opportunities in the agribusiness sector,” says Peter.

“From that we set up an advisory group made up of key industry leaders, tertiary institutions and ourselves exploring the idea of developing a dedicated agribusiness curriculum in the school. The main goal of the advisory group was to establish a pilot programme for what we call the Centre of Excellence for Agricultural Science and Business.”

“Since then we have sought and received over $1.5 million from private partners including DairyNZ, NZ Beef & Lamb and 10 other business partners. All of them are joining with us to write a new agribusiness curriculum for levels II and III NCEA and to make it a university entrance subject.”

“St Pauls is also funding the building of a $1.4 million state-of-the-art virtual classroom that we are going to use as our flagship and also for our partners to use. Last year we started trialling agribusiness as a subject in a very rudimentary form with 48 students in years 12 and 13. This year we have 84 students doing our trial agribusiness courses.”

The hope is that many of the students will go on to advanced tertiary education in fields related to agriculture. Prospects for that look good – the number of student leavers that went to agribusiness universities increased from 2 in 2013 to 17 last year and the curriculum being developed at St Pauls is intended to be shared eventually with many schools around the country.

“As part of a package to build the Centre of Excellence programme, we have on board seven other lead schools recommended by DairyNZ and NZ Beef & Lamb. They include Southland Girls’ High School, Southland Boys’ High School, Feilding High School, Lindisfarne College, Mount Albert Grammar School, John McGlashan College, Christchurch Boys’ High School and ourselves,” says Peter.

“These schools will trial the full programme next year, and it will be available to the rest of the country the year after. Hopefully this will begin to address the chronic shortage of graduates in the sector.”

The development of the programme is a public/private partnership. Funding for the curriculum development has come from the private sector, and the public part of the deal is the provision by Government of trained teachers in the ag/hort area, as there is currently a shortage.

Representatives from the lead schools will meet several times in 2015 to help write the curriculum. The St Pauls’ Centre of Excellence is setting up cloud i-learning sites so that everything will be available online. Kerry Allen is the Curriculum Director for the Centre and will be working closely with them to develop the curriculum ready for next year.

“Most educational programmes come from the education sector, but what makes this different is that our programme is being driven by the private agribusiness sector in conjunction with us, so it is a really good example of a private public partnership,” says Kerry.

“Each organisation on our advisory group gives input to the curriculum, so basically the sector is saying that this is what we believe you should be teaching our young people in order to interest and engage them in the tertiary careers that are available. We are actually aiming to attract tertiary capable youngsters from merit level NCEA and above and get them into courses at Massey, Lincoln, Waikato and any other providers of tertiary training that will take them into primary production, processing, business or anywhere right through the ag/hort value chain.”

“We are looking at a whole range of topics such as agri-science, agricultural marketing and finance, agri-technology, skills and investigation and future proofing. Under each strand there will be a number of units of work, teaching and learning units, to cover particular topics within that strand for things such as soil science, accounting, production topics, etc.”

To get into the Centre of Excellence programme, the students will have to be studying either Level III Chemistry or Biology or Level III Economics or Accounting. The effect of this will be for science students to learn a little about the business side of agriculture and the business students to know a bit about the science side before they head off to university.

In addition, all Centre of Excellence students will be doing Level III Ag/Hort Science, so the programme will actually increase the number of students studying primary production and marketing.

Peter Hampton says that he has talked with the vice chancellors of Massey, Lincoln and Waikato universities and the proposed course is putting in place what they require as well as what the agribusiness sector wants and what the NCEA standards demand.

“It has been an interesting challenge but we are getting close now. We are working with the Ministry of Education who own the standards and there is a process we will have to follow to get Ministry approval this year. It is going well so far,” he says.

“At St Pauls we are looking to attract our top academic students to the course, which is saying that we believe agribusiness is important to New Zealand and requires specialist skills and a high academic approach. We hope that other schools will sit up and take notice.”

St Pauls’ Centre of Excellence will make available all learning material on behalf of the principal partners. DairyNZ, NZ Beef & Lamb and St Pauls will “own” the institutional knowledge that is produced, but it will be made freely available to other schools.

“Schools can use the standards we develop in any way they like, but if they want to call themselves a Centre of Excellence then they have to be following the criteria of doing chemistry, biology, economics, accounting and ag/hort courses,” says Peter.

“A number of schools will not be in a position to pick it all up straight away, but we are quite happy for them to use our standards as part of their regular programmes and in time they may come in and join the full programme, so there is the opportunity for all schools to have their students involved in agribusiness.”

The Centre of Excellence for Agricultural Science and Business programme is being trademarked to uphold the standards across the rest of New Zealand. A longitudinal research study by Waikato University is being carried out over three years to monitor the effect of the programme and the outcomes it delivers and to serve as an accountability measure.

Peter Hampton says that there has been strong support from school parents and from students voting with their feet to come into the programme. “Initially we have involved a large number of speakers and field trips so in essence we are taking the kids out to the Centre, but eventually with our virtual classroom we will be able to bring the Centre to the kids. We have had really good speakers come in and talk to the students about what they are doing and that is really to interest them so that when they consider university they are informed about what course they might like to do and they know what they have to do for those courses at school before they get to university,” he says.

“Of course they won’t all go into agribusiness – some will go off and do their normal science degrees and so on, but we believe a significant number will take up the many opportunities in agriculture and horticulture.”

“If you look at the Government’s target of wanting to get 40,000 more people in the workforce with grade 4 qualifications or better by 2020, no other programme is addressing the heart of the problem in ways that this one does.”