University funding and the future of upland farming

“Blogging”, “blogging” or just plain blogging?  This is my first venture into blogging so let’s try to keep it plain.  The general theme of my blog is going to be education and the rural economy.  What is the blog: the individual article, or the collection of articles?  Is there another collective noun?  Until I know better I will assume that Blog=Article as well as collective noun.  In my first blog I want to look at the future of higher education funding and the future of upland farming (yawn – still with me here?).  They have both been in the news this week because the government has responded to the Browne Review of higher education funding, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at the future of upland communities.  As a rural educator currently charged with developing work-based education, what’s going to happen?

The Browne Review and the government’s response: it will cost more than ever to go to university, up to £9,000 in fees alone.  Loans will be available to cover this, repayable once salary hits £21,000 at higher interest rates than previously, over a maximum period of 30 years.  Any outstanding debt is then written off.  There will be penalties for early repayment.  Universities won’t actually get any more money, because the funding burden shifts to the students themselves and direct government funding will be cut. 

Impact on agicultural higher education: Higher education for agriculture is very concentrated at two or three specialised university colleges.  A significant proportion of higher education for the rural land-based sector is offered in local colleges, accredited by a partner university.  The specialised colleges have a distinctive ethos.  It is likely they will continue to attract significant numbers of students, for social and environmental as much as academic reasons.  The colleges can be very pleasant places to be.  Economic analysis in this sector is far from straightforward.   Farmers are often classified amongst the lower social groups for statistical purposes.  Income levels can be very low, despite high asset values in the industry (this in itself is a significant economic challenge in the sector).  Self-employment, or progression within the family business, may be the future for young men and women brought up on farms.  Higher education may be less expensive to members of these groups because low incomes mean access to student support.  On the other hand, those studying closer to home may be doing so because they are a key worker on the home farm.  One trainer in the North East told me that the cost to the farm of such a youngster leaving to study was in the order of £50,000 to £60,000 a year (value of lost labour input, additional cost of replacement labour, cost of support while away etc).  The new fee proposals jsut increased that to £56,000 to £66,000 a year – about 12%.  So this picture is complex.

Future of upland farming: For years we have supported upland farming through various government schemes.  Increasingly we have asked the recipients of this largesse to provide us with a widening range of benefits: environmental management, landscape, leisure opportunities and so on.  But the outlook for such support is doubtful.  Most are agreed that it is important to keep farmers in the uplands because they provide a cost-effective way to manage extensive tracts of land.  We value its appearance and environmental value as a farmed landscape.  Food security has now re-emerged as a key issue, and the upland areas can make significant contributions here too.  However, much of the national infrastructure that supported technical development in hill and upland farming has quietly withered away over the last 20 or more years: specialist research stations, experimental husbandry farms, and a consequent dispersal of specialist hill farming expertise from the northern colleges.  At its simplest the outlook for public support is this: less if any at all; certainly not more.

Putting these two streams together we must face up to this question: if young men and women from the hills will no longer afford to go away to university, if other support for farming in the hill and upland areas is going to reduce, what can be done?  Are we willing to see abandonment of upland holdings?  Does this mean there will be economic opportunities, or will holdings be abandoned for good reason? Those who remain committed to, and passionate about, the future of upland farming will have to look to their own resources.  It is also clear that hard evidence will be needed to justify continued public investment.  The abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities also sees the loss of an independent rural voice to government.  So how can the people in the hills help themselves?

One idea we have been working on is the idea of locally-based self-help groups.  Without taking up too much space here with the evolution of this idea, our current thinking is to establish learning groups of leading farmers and others whose work brings them close to farmers.  It’s hard to avoid educational jargon at this point, but the general idea would be for the group to work together to:

  • Identify the technical challenges – coupled with the opportunities (for example the potential role for upland peat areas in carbon management)
  • To prepare together a development plan under which each member of the group will take the lead in exploring and sharing the latest information and data.  The group will sort out the formats for this guidance, and individual members will then draft it.  The group will then moderate the draft material.  This could be conventional technical notes or papers, but it could also be short videos or other useful presentation material.
  • Along the way, members of the group will learn about the importance of ‘advocacy’ and how to function effectively as rural advocates.
  • A group like this could also act as its own research unit, building up the evidence base needed to underpin its advocacy role.

The challenge now is to test this idea in the real world, and if it stands up to that to turn it into an educational reality.  Graduate Certificate in Upland Farming Development anybody?

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