First among equals

The BBC reports today that first class degrees are soaring.  What are employers to make of this?  Does it mean there are more top class graduates than ever?   More committed students?  Better teaching?  Easier assessments?  More teaching to the test?  Dumbing down?  Any, all, or more.  Expect the usual comments, debate and lack of any meaningful conclusions or changes.  Meanwhile how helpful are degree classifications in choosing a new professional trainee in rural surveying or similar professional consultancy work?  The safe answer is probably, not a lot.

There are excellent examples of graduates who are now leading members of their professions, yet showed little inclination or sign of this as undergraduates.  There are also examples of top-class graduates who have made little headway in commercial, professional or for that matter academic life.  And of course there are low grade graduates who have achieved relatively little since and high grade graduates who have indeed gone on to great things.  Firm relationships prove elusive.

How would I address this today if I were recruiting a new professional assistant?  Here are my tips:

  • I would ask to see the profile of final marks they got for all the modules they studied on each year of the course.  This may highlight relative strengths and weaknesses (but don’t be too sure – you may just be looking at normal variations between one subject and another despite increasing attempts to homogenise these profiles).  These profiles are routinely issued to graduates by all universities.
  • Ask the candidates to prepare some work beforehand.  Perhaps an article for the firm’s newsletter of 500 to 1,000 words, on a given topic.  This could even be useful alongside an announcement of the arrival of the new recruit in due course.
  • Warn the candidates they will be asked to advise a client on a particular subject in exam-like conditions as part of the recruitment process.  Provide some warning of the subject, eg contentious rent review on a let farm, claim for a water-pipe burst or something which is relevant to the work they will be doing.  Allow reference material.  Ask the candidates to draft a short email or letter to the client or other party setting out their advice, by hand.
  • Meet the team: but make sure the team is briefed for whatever feedback you want from them on the candidates.
  • Use the interview imaginatively – include a mix of technical and problem-solving questions; ask candidates to perform a task which they might encounter in their working life with you.
  • Try to find the class position of the candidates.  For example in the top 10%, 25%?  On a reasonably sized course this at least gives an idea of relative performance within the cohort.  It’s not information that is routinely issued to graduates nor readily available, but there’s a growing case that it should be – perhaps to the nearest decile for courses with 50 or more graduates, and quartile for smaller courses.

And if you must persevere with placing any reliance on degree classifications it might be worth checking the statistics for yourself.  The Higher Education Statistics Agency produces the data that underpinned the BBC Report, and UniStat can give you information on individual courses at individual universities.  Comparison of classifications is not the only or the most useful way to compare potential graduate employees.

 

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Autumn Statement 2013

Good news if you want to employ a youngster, go to university, rent a shop or use a lot of fuel.

The Autumn Statement predicts increased growth, up to 1.4% from 0.6% for 2013, and the total in employment by 2018 of 31.2 million.  In other words, about half the population.

Fuel duty is to be frozen for the rest of this Parliament.  Employers will not have to pay employer National Insurance on under-21 year olds, unless they are being paid more than £813 a week (in other words higher rate taxpayers).

Business Rate rises will be limited to no more than 2% irrespective of higher inflation in 2014/15, and retail property will benefit from a rate discount of up to £1,000 in 2014/15 and 2015/16.  This will apply to properties with a rateable value of less than £50,000.  In addition new occupiers of shops which have been empty for at least 18 months will get a 50% discount on their rates bill.  Small Business Rate Relief will be doubled from April 2015.

Local authorities will be encouraged to sell high value vacant social housing in order to reinvest in new housing, and their revenue account borrowing limits will be raised in order to encourage social housing investment.

The Personal Allowance for Income Tax increases to £10,000 next April and a new form of Married Couples Allowance makes its debut.  It applies to civil partners as well, but don’t get too excited.  The transferable tax allowance of £1,000 arrives in 2015/16 and is NOT available where either party is a higher rate taxpayer.  So who does this help?  Couples where perhaps one partner isn’t able to use their own tax allowance in full and the other partner is an ordinary rate taxpayer.  So the resulting benefit is likely to be no more than £200 a year.

If your overseas clients are thinking of selling UK residential property they had better act now, as CGT is to be introduced on non-residents’ disposal of UK residential property.

Energy

Fracking – onshore oil and gas exploration – will receive a new tax allowance with immediate effect.  Details are thin at this stage however.

A new fund to help private landlords to improve the energy efficiency of let property is to be introduced.

Grants of up to £1,000 will be available to make substantial energy investments in property newly purchased over the next three years.

Infrastructure

The National Infrastructure Plan gets a makeover, but don’t get too excited.  Buried in the small print of the UK Insurance Growth Action Plan is the expectation that 70% of planned expenditure is expected to come from the private sector (meanwhile Defra sees cuts to its budget of £19 million next year and £18 million the year after).  Setting aside this small reservation, the list of projects includes:

  • New nuclear power at Wylfa in North Wales;
  • Railway station improvements at Gatwick Airport;
  • Improvements to the A50 at Uttoxeter by 2015/16;
  • The A14 improvements near Cambridge will not include a new toll road;
  • A new £10 million competition for ‘hard to reach’ broadband will launch in 2014, which may therefore be helpful to the less accessible rural areas;
  • Topical on the day that an Autumn Statement is accompanied by the threat of the worst floods on the East Coast since 1953, we are promised a list of key flood defence projects by the time of next year’s Autumn Statement;
  • There is also to be a £10 million prize pot for the first town or city to set up a pilot driverless car project.

A new Infrastructure Court is also promised – so look for some interesting relationships with the work of the Planning Inspectorate’s Major Infrastructure Unit (formerly the Infrastructure Planning Commission!).   So will this be IPC2?

The UK Insurance Growth Action Plan includes a chapter which introduces the investment of £25 billion by six insurance companies in infrastructure over the next five years.  They will be looking for commercially and economically viable economic and social infrastructure projects, most probably in transport, housing, energy, health and education.  This can include major projects led by private sector sponsors.  Projects already undertaken include campus developments, student accommodation, Alder Hey Children’s hospital.  And look out for a new logo to be displayed on infrastructure emerging from this initiative!  It’s a shame however, that this makes no mention of ‘green’ infrastructure – surely an attractive opportunity for the insurance industry where the reduction of flooding risk is on offer?

If you live in the countryside, don’t go to school there

Defra has published its latest update to its Statistical Digest of Rural England 2013 today.  The education section has been updated this time.  Key conclusions to emerge seem to be:

  • If you live in the countryside you’re as likely as anybody else to get 5 or more GCSE’s at Grades A* to C (equivalent to an old O level pass)
  • But if you go to school in the countryside, you’re slightly less likely to get 5 or more GCSE’s at C or above
  • However, having got your GCSE’s while living in the countryside, it seems that you’re slightly more likely to go to university than if you live elsewhere
  • The moral of this digest seems to be to live in the countryside and go to school in the town

Defra updates its Digest of Rural Statistics one section at a time.  June’s update is the education section.

Dissertation Time

Term starts at Harper Adams and the final year REALM (Rural Enterprise and Land Management) students have just returned from their placement years.  It’s always good to see them back from placement: confident after their year’s experience, appetites for learning refreshed and the maturity that comes from direct professional experience.

One of the early tasks for the students is to select a topic for their dissertation and find a tutor who is willing to supervise their project.  This is a very important piece of work as it counts for 25% of the final year, and must result in a highly coherent 10,000 word thesis if it is to be acceptable to the examiners.  It’s also an opportunity for a student to work with industry if suitable projects come forward for a piece of suitable research.  An industrial partner can help with access to data, case studies and the formulation of a relevant research question as well as costs of travel, surveys or other incidentals, even a sponsorship or bursary in some cases.

A well defined project with a good student can produce a report of real value to the sponsor, and in appropriate cases it is possible to ensure that the report is treated as confidential.  However these do need to be set up really carefully to ensure that the student will be able to achieve the best outcome against the academic requirements.

Topics of interest to the students who have already approached me have included water in agriculture, renewables on farms and professional fees for surveying services.

I have suggested a number of topics for students to consider and these include:

  • The RICS Designated Professional Body scheme for insurance intermediaries under the Financial Services Act: practitioner awareness and application
  • Why students choose to study at HAUC
  • Online learning as a form of CPD amongst rural practice chartered surveyors
  • Land manager perceptions of ecosystem services/payments for ecosystem services (PES)/legal and tenure aspects of layered and bundled PES
  • Short term farm business tenancies and their impact on soil quality and condition
  • Organisational change and development as continual revolution. The role of corporate memory and continuity in organisational stability in rural land management.
  • Deployment of social media in rural land management, levels of engagement by practitioners.
  • The reflection of risk and confidence in valuation reporting.

These are start points of course, and will need to be developed very carefully.

I have summarised the requirements in this way:

What we need at the end of this project, next April or May, is a finely polished and highly coherent 10,000 word research report which:
  • Sets out the area of interest (what and why) clearly in an introduction
  • Acquaints the reader with Your Analysis of all the relevant literature, concluding with the particular issue you are going to research
  • Sets out a viable method with a convincing justification including all ethical issues which might be raised, in the context of research methods as a whole
  • Presents some interesting and novel results from your actual research
  • Discusses these in the context of what we knew already (back to the lit review)
  • Draws out some conclusions and recommendations, preferably of a practical as well as academic nature.
  • Reflects on your own experience in undertaking the project.

If any readers feel they can help with a student dissertation then please do get in touch.

#AS2011: Rural aspects of the Government’s Autumn Statement on the economy

The price of energy and agricultural commodities featured early in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement to Parliament today.  They share the blame for the UK’s economic slowdown in the last 18 months.

But these were not the only rural interests in the Autumn Statement.  Some detailed proposals which did not command the headlines include:

  • Rural Broadband: £20 million Rural Broadband Community Fund for superfast broadband to rural homes and businesses.  This will be supported by pilot work in North Yorkshire.
  • £15 million for up to six pilot Rural Growth Networks.  These will demonstrate how local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships can work with the planning regime and targeted infrastructure investment to support rural growth.  Of this, £2 million over 3 years is aimed at rural enterprises led by women, particularly those in the Rural Growth Networks.
  • Organic farmers may be exempted from regulations controlling the use of nitrate-based fertilisers – consultations are to follow
  • Red Tractor and other certification schemes will reduce the inspection and compliance burden on farm businesses
  • £100 million of RDPE funding to help small businesses with skills, facilities and competitiveness
  • £25 million to promote rural tourism, including £10 million within RDPE to develop rural tourist destinations
  • A Food and Drink Export Action Plan – a summit will be held in March 2012 to boost innovation in small agri-food businesses
  • £15 million Rural Community Renewable Energy Fund will help communities with the upfront cost of renewables projects
  • Forestry Commission, England, to offer 45 training opportunities for new Forestry Apprentices, working with private companies
  • £80 million investment for new facilities at the Institute of Animal Health (the infamous Pirbright laboratories)

The Autumn Statement also contains broader implications for the rural economy.  This list is by no means exhaustive:

  • Fuel price increases of 3p/litre due in January now deferred until August, with August’s further increase scrapped
  • Tax relief for investment in new business: Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) from April 2012 will allow 50% Income Tax Relief for new business investment and CGT exemption for gains reinvested through SEIS in the same year.
  • Extension of Business Rates Relief
  • Corporation Tax to be down to 23% by 2014
  • Infrastructure Investment: An additional £5 billion of spending on infrastructure.  The National Infrastructure Plan has been updated.
  • Pension funds will further bolster infrastructure investment through an Insurers’ Infrastructure Investment Forum.  This could release a further £20 billion for infrastructure investment.
  • New Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure, chaired by the Treasury Chief Secretary, to monitor the delivery of 40 infrastructure projects most critical to growth.
  • Proposed changes to the Infrastructure Planning Regime by mid-2012 will reduce the burden of pre-application work – this threatens to undermine the enormous emphasis put on this vital preparatory stage by the Infrastructure Planning Commission in its short life
  • Other planning reforms should also mean an easier run for development proposals: a remit for key consenting and advisory agencies to promote sustainable development; a 13 week maximum timescale for most non-planning consents; easier claims for costs against statutory consultees who have prompted a refusal of planning permission later overturned on appeal; a review of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directive to ensure it does not cause unnecessary costs and delays.
  • The downside of all these planning changes may be a reluctance on the part of agencies to promote robust objections, poorer preparation of major development proposals and weaker protection for important habitats and species
  • Look out too, for consultations on proposals which will make it easier to convert agricultural buildings to office, leisure and retail space.
  • Business Finance Partnership to provide £1 billion outside the banking network for investment in smaller businesses.
  • National Loan Guarantee Scheme to guarantee bank funding for smaller businesses over two years.
  • HE Global, a new online information and advice portal for Higher Education wishing to expand abroad – this is intended to bring government, universities and industry expertise together to promote educational exports.  Given our world-leading food expertise, this may be an indirect way to promote food and rural businesses to a global audience
  • Numerous housing measures, not least improved discounts on the Right to Buy social housing and a commitment to reinvest the proceeds in new social housing.  But this will benefit rural areas?
  • Changes to health and safety provisions will exempt self-employed people who pose no risk to others from H&S requirements, as well as simplifying guidance, more consistent application between local authorities, limitation of accountability to risks that can realistically be managed and a stronger message to the EU on the importance of a risk- and evidence-based approach
  • The establishment of a Data Strategy Board to maximise value from Met Office, Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Companies House data, to provide a free range of core reference datasets, may help effective rural land management

More generally, rural skills development may be able to benefit from:

  • £250 million pilot fund to enable business to design, develop and purchase the vocational training programmes it needs
  • Improvement to apprenticeship programmes with reduction in red tape
  • Kite-marking of courses that employers value by the science, technology, engineering and maths sector skills councils
  • Numerous measures may make it easier to employ and dismiss workers

And Look Out For:

  • 6 December: further tax announcements although we already know that the CGT exempt amount is frozen at £10,600 for 2012-13
  • December: PM to set out the government’s strategy for ensuring the UK is the best location for translational research science in the life sciences.  In particular this will support the work of universities, NHS, private investors and businesses.  Will food and the rural contribution to human health get a look-in?
  • New permitted development rights for non-domestic micro-generation of electricity
  • A review of the impact of the freshwater legislative framework

For more details see the Autumn Statement 2011 itself.  Foll0w this link for details of DEFRA’s Rural Economy Growth Review, also published on 29 November.

Ode to DEFRA, happy retirement to Steve Latham and who was Ralph Robinson?

Steve Latham, Chris Cartwright and I became Senior Lecturers at Harper Adams in January 1990.  Steve in Marketing, Chris in Business Organisation and me in Land Management.  Together we were inducted into the ways of higher education – analysis, evaluation, synthesis.  Steve retires this week, fondly remembered I am sure by 21 years-worth of marketing students at the college.

Steve has been clearing out his office, an amazing collection of old books and videos.   One item, published by Putnam in 1927 in their Whitehall Series is The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries by Sir Francis Floud KCB, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry 1920-1927.  This gripping opus contains the following Departmental Rhyme, originally published by Punch on 20 April 1927 which might at least provide some wry amusement at the contrasts and similarities between the MAF of then (the second F for food came later) and the DEFRA of  today.

The Ministry of Ag and Fish

Does Everything that one could wish

To foster, guide and chaperon

Those industries it calls its own;

And it would be unkind to chaff

The members of its faithful staff

Who seek no rest and find no peace,

But labour always to increase,

By deeds of departmental derring

Corn, flesh and fowl and good red herring.

-oOo-

No slackness is allowed to smirch

Their splendid record of research,

No doubts molest their firm reliance

On methods blessed by modern science.

One expert, in his spacious lab,

Observes the habits of the crab;

Another takes his grain of wheat,

His whiting or his sugar beet

And tries by some ingenious test

What mode of living suits it best;

While others dedicate their lives

To proving how the ploughman thrives

Who mitigates his dull vocation

With intellectual recreation,

And spends an hour of leisure daily

Playing upon the ukelele.

-oOo-

The farmer strolling around his paddock,

The fisherman in quest of haddock,

Unite to sing with grateful glee

The praises of their Ministry.

Rude simple souls, they lack that store

Of expert scientific lore

On which alone success depends,

And this their kind Department sends.

For, if calamities befall

The men who till, the men who trawl –

If beasts contract the foot-and-mouth,

If blizzards blow from north or south,

If prices slump and credit fails,

If nets are rent by sportive whales,

The Staff is ready in a trice

To help them with its best advice,

On land or sea, in drought or storm,

Sent free of charge in pamphlet form.

–ooOOoo–

And a last obscure question for readers who have stayed on this far.  Ralph Robinson was the pseudonym of an active farmer and contributor to Arthur Young’s Annals of Agriculture in the late 1700’s.  He was better known as King George III, Farmer George, and became the founder and patron of the Board or Society for the encouragement of Agriculture and Internal Improvement which was created on 23 August 1793, by Royal Charter.

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?