Covid-19 has hit the education sector hard but agricultural colleges across the country have innovated new methods in the face of adversity to attract prospective students and conduct business as usual. Mollie Leach reports.
The Government’s unprecedented lockdown has seen a shift in the way higher education institutions operate, with many agricultural colleges opting to go digital in an effort to respond to the challenges presented by Covid-19.
With strict guidelines on social distancing, virtual course open events and tours of campus and accommodation have become part of a wider initiative to both attract and provide stability for prospective agricultural students.
And despite adversity, Lynne Lomax, a spokesperson for Reaseheath College in Cheshire, said the institution had reported an upsurge in interest in its agricultural, food production and agricultural engineering courses since the pandemic.
She said: “The college and its university centre is attracting strong numbers to its new online applicants hub, where prospective students can view courses and wider college information before making their application for September.”
Ms Lomax highlighted the virtual course open event held in May had been ‘extremely successful’ and had since attracted hundreds of attendees to course specific information events online.
This included the agriculture information event on June 4, which saw live question and answer sessions with lecturers, alongside opportunities to meet tutors and video masterclasses on a range of subjects, such as all terrain vehicle safety checks and safe riding, basic tractor maintenance and soil analysis.
“The information on joining instructions and applications remain available on the applicants hub for those unable to attend and are regularly updated, which helps to keep students in the loop. It also reminds them that we are moving forward with the intention of operating as normal as we possibly can,” Ms Lomax said.
Reaseheath principal Marcus Clinton echoed this and reinforced the college had adapted quickly to online learning for its current students and therefore claimed it was a ‘natural process’ to move course information and application processes online.
“We felt this was the best way to enable students to make informed choices and apply under the current circumstances. We are very busy with new and internal progression and we are processing offers, but there are still course places available for those wishing to join in September,” Mr Clinton said.
Mr Clinton was also keen to point out the land-based sector was ‘resilient’ and added the technical qualifications the college offered in agriculture, engineering and food production were ‘very much to the fore of the Government’s national agenda’.
Alex Lambert, marketing director at Brooksby Melton College, in Leicestershire, spoke of the challenges the cancellation of summer events had posed for attracting new students but also reinforced the resilience of the agricultural industry.
She said: “A lot of the summer events, such as the Lincolnshire Show, have been cancelled, which are usually integral to attracting prospective students.
“But we are expecting to see a flurry after our virtual open day on June 20, an event which has become more important than ever for creating a similar experience for students.
“It will include videos of what the farming staff at the college get up to day by day and despite the challenges presented by Covid-19, I think the last few weeks have demonstrated the agricultural industry has not stopped and this is evident in the level of interest we have received as a result."
With the college home to an 344-hectare (850-acre) estate, Ms Lambert said the institution was keen to get back to normal as soon as possible so as to provide new and returning students with the hands-on training that is required for land-based courses.
She said: “There is a lot of uncertainty around the format of teaching going forward and the safety of our students and teachers is paramount.
“But the majority of our investment goes into agriculture and it is something we are incredibly passionate about and we are therefore very much encouraging applications for September.”
Ms Lambert added recent weeks had also seen the college work with Young Farmers groups to ‘hammer home’ just how important food production and farming is, saying: “What a brilliant time to apply, especially with farmers and food production workers being classed as key workers. This has been part of our drive to attract new students, as they are the future.”
Jennie Stewart, head of marketing and recruitment at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) in Cirencester, also highlighted the coronavirus outbreak had re-enforced the ‘critical importance’ of farming and the food supply chain.
“There continues to be a strong interest in education and careers in this and the wider land-based sector,” she said.
And while Covid-19 restrictions have meant that the RAU has currently been unable to hold open and offer holders days in person, Ms Stewart said the organisation had been active in launching a series of on-going virtual events for prospective students.
She said: “These have included bespoke videos prepared by lecturers, as well as live Q and A sessions with academics and support staff covering the courses we offer.”
Pointing to high levels of participation, Ms Stewart added: “The delivery of these online events has required the creation of a wealth of digital content from academic and support staff across the RAU and I am delighted with how well they have been received by prospective students.”
As Scotland enters the first phase of its easing of lockdown restrictions, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has also announced its new academic year will commence on September 28, notably with a combination of face-to-face and online teaching.
Allowing for the ’vital’ practical elements of courses such as agriculture, engineering and animal care, for example, the college will see reduced class sizes to provide students with the opportunity to carry on with the best possible experience.
Professor Wayne Powell, principal and chief executive of SRUC, said: “Like everything else, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the education sector and, over the past two months, students and staff at SRUC have had to adapt to new ways of learning and new ways of teaching.
"Fortunately, we were already looking to the future by introducing more blended (online and face-to-face) ways of teaching and learning. Under this new approach, students are equal partners in SRUC and we will empower our students to have more choice in how they learn.
"With lockdown measures being gradually eased, now is the perfect time to look ahead and we are excited and working hard to ensure that our students continue to enjoy high-quality, purposeful learning in 2020-21."