Fertile Grounds for Growing Minds

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-By Aleisha Parr

From its humble beginnings as one of NSW’s first agricultural research farms to a now thriving University which describes itself as “the largest and most successful provider of agricultural, horticultural and wine science education in Australia”, Charles Sturt University (CSU) is certainly the place to be for students interested in what have always been some of the nation’s strongest and most fascinating industries. The University’s Wagga Wagga Campus not only offers up its rich history, but also all that has been built upon it, including a fully operational commercial farm and vineyard, as well as numerous facilities for research and a supportive local community.

“Students are based where the action happens,” says Professor Jim Pratley, of the School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences at CSU. “They’re quite integrated with the agricultural communities in the area, so they are already accustomed to the industry when they graduate.”

Most notably, the University collaborates with the NSW Department of Primary Industries to provide its students with access to the E H Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation. The Centre aims to “address the critical challenges currently facing the agricultural industries of Australia,” such as declining rural profits and changing demography, uncertainty due to climate change and global warming, declining soil health and soil erosion, water cost and quality, the future of pesticides, bio-security, the GM and organic debates, community concerns about the environment, animal health and rights, changing markets and globalisation, changing funding structures and increasing regulation.

Charles Sturt University also offers its students interested in equine science – including breeding – training for various disciplines, show and sale preparation, handling techniques and research, and the opportunity to study first hand in its purpose-built Equine Centre on its Wagga Wagga Campus.

“We have working operations here that the students get involved with that perhaps don’t occur at a lot of other institutions. I think the fact that we have those associations keeps academics well in touch with reality within the industry,” said Professor Pratley.

It is this connection with both the community and the University that makes for such an enriching experience for students of the Agricultural and Wine Sciences programs. The Wagga Wagga Campus, home to the School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences, has been in use as a centre for agricultural studies for over seven decades. Interestingly, the University’s Wagga Wagga Campus sits on the location of the Wagga Experiment Farm.

The Wagga Wagga site continued to draw interest as it developed into what was established in 1949 as the Wagga Agricultural College, later becoming a vital component of Charles Sturt University upon its founding in July of 1989. Today, the University operates through eight campuses, located in Albury-Wodonga, Bathurst, Canberra, Dubbo, Goulburn, Orange, Parramatta, Wagga Wagga, Ontario, Canada and a specialist centre in Manly.

“We’ve been offering agricultural degrees here for quarter of a century. So there’s been an evolution of agricultural education and we continue to be one of the strong players in agricultural education in Australia,” said Professor Pratley.

Further strengthening this reach, Charles Sturt University played a pivotal role in the introduction of distance education programs to students who otherwise would not be able to attend the campus to pursue a degree. Currently, students are able to study courses at Bachelor and postgraduate levels, and may also participate in Single Subject study. Programs utilise the latest technologies including online forums, wikis, blogs, podcasts, access to library resources and an assignment submission portal. In this way, students, regardless of where they are located, are able to maintain a level of involvement in a program of study thus minimising negative effects of isolation.

Professor Pratley says that this type of learning suits the agriculture sector particularly well, as many of the University’s students in these programs have already achieved significant industry experience and may work on farms, vineyards, or in the research or commercial sectors. This study option allows them to maintain that work while also building toward a greater future through study.

He explains, “It’s a way of helping students obtain qualifications where the circumstances don’t permit them to come on campus full-time. They get the benefits of networking with other students in similar situations across Australia. This relieves some of the isolation they might otherwise experience. The University also has forums whereby students can interact with each other independent of the lecturer but the lecturer monitors the forums so that if they are going off topic, he or she can bring them back on track.”

With its diverse range of degrees, accompanied by its industry connections and advanced research facilities, Charles Sturt University offers students a place to grow and mature as industry professionals long before graduation and actual entry into the industry. On campus students are also drawn to CSU because its campus in Wagga Wagga is more affordable than studying in some of the metropolitan areas of Australia.

“We’ve always been a strong player in agriculture here,” says Professor Pratley with pride. “That’s recognised and so we have a high proportion of rural students coming into our program. I know our graduates have very good reputations in the industry and this attracts new students into our courses.”

Interest in both the on campus and the distance education programs in Agricultural and Wine Science disciplines are strong. Professor Pratley says that the University works to ensure that all students with an interest in developing as a professional within these industries are given ample opportunity to do so. Students can enter through the traditional post-school selection process, as mature students and through what is called the ‘Principal’s Report Early Program’, allowing students who are seen by their school principal to have a strong capability to engage in studies at the university level the opportunity to apply for early admission.

Professor Pratley says that this process is a great benefit both to the University and to the students, who thus have a high level of certainty about their futures. As for the response, Professor Pratley says that the University has been experiencing a surge of interest in the school’s programs over the past few years, both for on campus and distance studies.

“We’ve been able to provide a steady stream of students into the program over many years. Other institutions have been struggling to maintain numbers, and the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture has been trying to alert people to the opportunities and to generate more interest in what we know to be really exciting and rewarding careers in agriculture.”

Helping to enable those careers has become a recent focus of the CSU, which has instituted a fourth-year industry-specific internship program for its students, which Professor Pratley reports has been well received both by students and by industry professionals. As it is, he says that all of CSU’s agricultural studies students who are seeking employment are typically snapped up by employers even before graduation, demonstrating both the high demand for trained industry professionals as well as the respect the industry holds for graduates of the University.

As for the internship program, he says it offers students an opportunity to experience an industry position first hand, while also promoting the reputation of CSU through the continuously impressive performance of its students participating in the program. “We obviously want to build up this program, and the industry is responding well to it. A positive experience with a student means that the employer will be likely to offer the student a job when they finish. In that way, it’s also a means of building up the relationship between agri-business and the University program so that it’s a win-win for both parties,” he said.

With such a strong agricultural industry across Australia, it is important for students interested in pursuing a career within it to provide themselves with the competitive advantage and necessary skills, both intellectual and practical, needed to compete. The industry can be very rewarding but as it continues to progress, we are seeing that those who become successful are those who are most prepared. “The agricultural industry is one of the most important in Australia. There are really good careers out there for prospective students, and the way to access those careers is through a strong agricultural sciences education, and of course CSU is one of the major players. We are based in rural Australia and are providing that pathway so that people can have a rewarding career and make an ongoing contribution to Australia,” concluded Professor Pratley.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:33 PM AEDT