Careers in Agriculture

Ms BIRD (Cunningham—Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (11:50): It is with pleasure I take this opportunity to speak on the motion moved by the member for Murray before the House today. I managed in my office to catch some of the contributions before I ran very quickly to get here to join the debate. I certainly acknowledge the great thought and commitment to this important area of industry that has been expressed by all of the speakers in the debate today.

It is certainly the case that the government agrees that the Australian agricultural industry does offer great opportunities for higher education and vocational education and training graduates. We acknowledge the importance of ensuring that key industries, such as the agribusiness sector, have the skilled workforce that they need.

While we agree with the spirit of the motion, we believe that agreeing to it as this time would be premature, and I will outline why we have that view. As members opposite would be aware the important issue is currently being examined across a number of inquiries. The Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations is conducting an inquiry into all aspects of higher education and skills training to support future demand in agriculture and agribusiness in Australia. As well, the Senate Select Committee on Australia's Food Processing Sector is due to report by 30 June 2012. Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, is leading a review of Australia's science, education, research and development outputs, which is set for publication in the first quarter of this year. The government is also developing Australia's first-ever national food plan, to ensure that the government's policy settings are right for Australia over the short, medium and long term. Once these inquiries are concluded, we will examine those findings closely in order to respond appropriately to them.

The government is aware that research by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture, for example, points to a shortfall in the number of university qualified graduates needed to meet the number of jobs in the agribusiness sector. We also understand that a decline in agricultural science enrolments is resulting in shortages of agricultural scientists and consultants, particularly for more senior positions and in remote areas.

The Labor government is committed to supporting up-skilling and participation in key industries, including this one. The government provided the University of Western Sydney with nearly $1 million to create an agriculture and food alliance with the University of Sydney. This alliance, among other projects, will build interest in agriculture among high school students. The previous speaker talked about the importance of teaching children at an early age to take a love for this particular area. It will also establish outreach programs in order to help increase student enrolments.

Nationally, a third of Australian universities offer places in agriculture related courses at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, with most universities offering related courses in business and science fields as well. The learning and training opportunities are there, and this government is making information available to help people make decisions about study and careers in agriculture. This includes the Job Guide, Australian Jobs and the My University website. The importance of getting new students into agriculture related courses is not lost on the government. Agriculture units of study receive the highest rate of government funding, $20,284 per Commonwealth supported place in 2012. The Labor government's higher education reforms will have a positive flow-on effect for participation in agribusiness education and training. As the government transforms the higher education landscape, agricultural science will be among the many disciplines benefiting from a boost to the number of enrolments around the country as well as improved access for regional students. The Australian agricultural industry offers a diverse range of careers requiring a wide range of skill levels, and agribusiness will be a beneficiary of the reform agenda.

One of a number of challenges for all Australian governments under this reform agenda is to deliver a more responsive vocational education and training system which includes supporting growth in the system that is targeted to the areas of industry need. As part of the negotiation of the National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development $1.7 billion is on the table for states and territories to work with the Commonwealth in transforming and reforming the training system, in particular to target it more effectively to meet the area of skills need by industries.