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Agriculture classes on university campuses continue to grow

It isn’t only a robust farm economy that’s driving post-secondary ag education, but job opportunities and heavy recruitment too

Empty tables and chairs in a lecture hall

The story is the same across the country. “Our application numbers in all of our programs are up,” says Joe Varamo, manager of academic programs for Ontario Agricultural College, Canada’s largest ag university, where total ag enrolment has climbed to 2,600, up from 2,000 just four years ago. “We’ve gone from accepting approximately 450 students (per year) to about 625.”

It’s clear there’s something special about agriculture on campus.

At the University of Saskatchewan, for instance, growth in agriculture faculty students has far outpaced the rest of the university, and has even topped the department’s own ambitious targets.

“Our undergrad enrolment is up 11.5 per cent this year and our grad enrolment is also up… it will be more than five per cent,” says Mary Buhr, dean of the U of S’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

By contrast, overall U of S enrolment managed only a 0.6 per cent rise.

Buhr says the college’s current five-year plan ends in 2016 but its goals have already been surpassed with undergrad enrolment climbing around 10 per cent in each of the last five years.

“We were targeting to grow to 850 undergraduates by 2016,” Buhr says. “In 2015, we are over 1,100.”

But that’s not the only proof of the new muscle being shown by agriculture in academia.

At the University of Manitoba’s faculty of agriculture and food sciences, for example, enrolment has surged due to the same national trends as at Guelph and Saskatchewan, but it also received an extra shot in the arm when the faculty absorbed parts of the former department of human ecology.

“We have seen a nearly 50 per cent increase in our degree program numbers by virtue of adding the bachelor of science in human nutritional sciences to our programs,” says spokeswoman Crystal Jorgenson.

Jorgenson calls it a natural fit in terms of research collaborations, and adds that it has enhanced partnerships with researchers and industry partners.

“In July of this year, the department of textile sciences became part of our department of biosystems engineering, and has increased our offerings in graduate education in some very unique and exciting areas,” Jorgenson adds.

Similarly, at the University of Alberta, just under 400 students enrolled this year in the three ag programs offered by the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences, up from 315 five years ago.

Yet faculty dean Stan Blade also notes that the ratio of graduate students to undergrad is changing, with over 500 students at the master’s and PhD levels across the entire faculty.

Part of this reflects corporate investment, with about $44 million in external money coming in each year over the last five years to support research and the growing number of graduate students.

“I’ve spoken to a number of those grad students, and they think that they have further opportunities from a career standpoint by getting a graduate degree even on top of their bachelor’s,” says Blade. “We’ve seen the trend up in those graduate student numbers (partly) because of the huge investments that companies and others are making with us. But I think there’s also an appetite for people to get those higher-level degrees as well. That could be something to watch in the future.”

Blade has also noticed that parents who have graduated from university often put emphasis on their children earning their degrees as well. “When people are running multimillion-dollar operations, they need to have a lot of skills,” Blade says.

Job prospects are excellent too and students graduating with agricultural degrees have employers waiting to hire them.

“This is a $27-billion industry just in our province, and clearly that kind of activity requires great people. We’re certainly confident we’re putting those people into the workplace,” says Blade.

“I care about the fact that all of our graduates get jobs — and many of them get multiple job offers,” adds Buhr. “Our country needs our graduates, so that’s why we want more students, because they are fulfilling a need within the province and the country.”

Varamo also sees a huge appetite in the agri-food and agribusiness industries for skilled professionals.

“It seems as though many of our students upon graduation are finding employment… employment of choice in the areas of interest that they have,” Varamo says. In some cases, students have secured jobs before they even graduate, he adds.

The University of Manitoba held its Agricultural, Science and Engineering Career Fair in October and numerous ag industry recruiters were on hand, eager to speak with students.

“It has actually become increasingly competitive — employers want to interact with our students through pizza nights and information sessions in their search for top-quality summer and permanent employees,” Jorgenson says.

U of M ag students typically have their summer or permanent job offers by November.

Explaining the numbers

Student enrolment has trended higher in the last few years thanks in part to strength in the agriculture industry.

“The agricultural economy is doing well, and all the signs are that agriculture will be a solid profession for many years to come,” says Buhr.

Even so, Buhr adds that growth in her faculty has been outpacing the farm economy. Previously, enrolments had echoed farm income, with student numbers rising about two years after the ag economy started rising, and dropping about two years following a decline.

That has changed.

“Over the last few years the farm economy has been pretty robust and our numbers have been growing, but we’ve been growing at a faster rate than the farm economy,” says Buhr. “We expect we will be more independent of the economy because we have programs that aren’t as directly linked to primary agriculture. We’re expecting our numbers are not going to go down.”

Programs like renewable resource management, agribusiness, animal bioscience, and next year’s Aboriginal agriculture and land management, are contributing by attracting students from beyond the farm and rural areas.

“Once they come into the college, they realize the wealth of career opportunities in agriculture and are really turned on by it,” says Buhr. “All of our graduating students get jobs; they have a choice of jobs. And the word is getting out about that.”

Heavy recruiting by all the agriculture departments has paved the way for the success they’ve experienced, and as at Saskatchewan, most schools are extending their recruitment to students with non-farm and urban backgrounds.

“Part of the initiative with our (recruitment program) is to reach out into those urban areas and communicate to a kid from a high school in downtown Toronto who’s never stepped on a farm that you don’t have to come from a farming background,” says Varamo.

The U of M has had success targeting urban students by presenting its Student Ambassadors program at high schools, and by interacting with city kids at a variety of recruitment events both on and off campus, as well as through more indirect approaches like workshops for science teachers.

Programs such Agriculture in the Classroom and campaigns such as Farm Credit Canada’s Agriculture More Than Ever also increase the overall awareness of career opportunities in the agri-food industry, Jorgenson says.

“We have been conducting a strong student recruitment campaign for the last few years, and we are also seeing an increase in the number of students moving from our two-year diploma program into our degree program,” she says.

Enhanced learning

Today’s agriculture degree graduates are emerging with an enhanced set of experiences, beyond what existed even 20 years ago thanks to experiential learning at home and abroad.

“We get our students involved with volunteer programs in the city, and we have a number of practicums and internships within our various programs that get people out into the community and working in businesses,” says Blade, adding that international experience is available as well. “Over the past number of years, we have formalized programs that the faculty puts on for students to go to Cuba, India, Japan and Mexico.”

Exchange programs provide valuable enhanced learning outside campus, and these ag faculties all offer their own unique experiences.

“It sets (students) up to differentiate themselves from another candidate down the road when they’re applying for a job,” says Varamo.

Schools are also developing more online courses for their own students and people in mid-career who don’t necessarily have time to spend on campus.

“By no means are we unique in this, but this is something we keep hearing from people who want to enhance their skills, so we’re certainly going beyond the chalk-and-blackboard approach,” says Blade.

Buhr notes her faculty is meeting the challenges of managing the ever-increasing number of students while still maintaining quality.

Says Buhr: “We are looking at every possible method and new ways of doing things in order to continue to provide a quality education to far more students than we were expecting to have.”

This article was originally published as “Full classes” in the November 2015 issue of Country Guide

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Richard Kamchen

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