As thousands of young people prepare to receive their GCSE and A-level results next week, Lauren Dean takes a look at why agricultural colleges are an attractive option.
Choosing a career path is not a walk in the park and, for many, does not always give a clear idea of the future.
But for youngsters aged 16-18, the opportunities are endless, with colleges and universities across the UK offering undergraduate degrees, apprenticeships and adult skills courses.
Each provides a great option to help shape the beginning of a career and although there are a host of subject offers, agricultural colleges and universities are moving up the ranks in terms of student satisfaction and cutting-edge facilities.
A number of institutes have recently invested in modern agri-tech and research centres, offering students facilities such as livestock innovation centres, production development kitchens, laboratories and instrumentation rooms.
Myerscough College director of marketing Stuart Davidson says it looks as if it is going to be a good year for agricultural recruitment.
He says: “Applicants are up significantly for school leavers. I think we are a particularly successful college in terms of being one of the top three in student achievement and success.”
In 2017, the college developed a multi-million pound Food and Farming Innovation and Technology Centre (FFIT) as part of its Lancashire campus, with practical research and cutting-edge technology and facilities.
It was launched to help ‘train the farmers of the future’ and spark ideas on how innovation and technology could be used on-farm.
And although reports suggest the UK is seeing a trend in young people not planning to go to specific colleges or universities but waiting to see what comes up on the day, the agricultural sector generally seems more prepared.
Mr Davidson says: “On the whole, people are reasonably well organised. Most students want that organisation and knowledge of where they will be going.”
Many of the full-time students studying agriculture-related topics at Myerscough do not come from family farms or have experience in the sector, but most apprentices do.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed total student numbers for agriculture and related students in the academic years 2015-16 to 2017-18 had decreased from 19,025 to 18,680.
But Mr Davidson says people are becoming more knowledgeable of the sector and its need for innovation and technology.
Mr Davidson says: “We are actually investing heavily in agriculture and agricultural engineering.
“People are generally more aware of the technology which goes into agriculture than they were previously, and some of the stereotypes of modern agriculture are shifting.”
As well as the growing opportunities for top-spec research and technology, satisfaction rates of students studying food and farming courses are soaring.
The National Student Survey (NSS) 2019 showed 90 per cent of students were satisfied overall with their course at Myerscough, a figure higher than the national average and the joint highest of all other major land-based colleges in England.
The Royal Agricultural University (RAU) was also ranked seventh in the UK for student satisfaction.
Figures from the NSS 2019 showed the university, which also ranked top in the South West for student satisfaction, scored 89 per cent, up 7 per cent on last year.
RAU vice-chancellor Joanna Price says the response reflected the university’s focus and commitment to providing ‘an outstanding student experience’.
She says: “It is testament to the dedication of our academic, professional services and support staff who create a supportive learning community where every student matters.”
In the same survey, Harper Adams University was revealed as the joint first university in England for student satisfaction, also placed joint third in the UK.
It was also awarded gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in June last year for the second year in a row, suggesting ‘consistently outstanding teaching, learning and outcomes for its students’.
Degree programmes – such as agricultural engineering, animal health and welfare, animal science, veterinary nursing, food and consumer studies and food nutrition and well-being – all returned a 100 per cent overall satisfaction rating.
Cheshire land-based college Reaseheath College says it is seeing a stable trend in the number of 16-18 year olds studying agriculture, with the number of undergraduates on the rise.
And most of these students, as with other colleges, know exactly what they want to do and where they want to study.
Head of further education agriculture at the college, Alan Brown, says it reflects the sector’s importance in the UK today.
He says: “It will be up to the next generation of farmers and food technologists to meet the growing demand for nutritious and sustainably produced food in a global market.
“Employers these days demand a good mix of practical skills and industry experience, plus the academic and technical knowledge to take their businesses forward.”
Reaseheath College offers focused technical qualifications for school leavers which develop crucial employability skills and embrace new technologies, alongside practical experience available through its demonstration farm and work placements.
Courses, such as the level 3 advanced technical extended diploma in agriculture, also offer a middle year in industry and a final year specialising in dairy production, mechanised arable crop production or beef and sheep production.
Mr Brown says the course is equivalent to three A-Levels, meaning it is ‘viewed highly by employers and universities’.
He says: “Almost all our further education students find a career in their chosen field or progress onto a degree.
“Industry-standard training facilities on site include an advanced engineering and agri-tech centre and a centre for horticulture, the environment and sustainable technologies.
“We are also the only college in the world to operate a food centre which holds the British Retail Consortium AA accredited food standard.
“These offer unique training opportunities which you would not get at conventional A-level academies.”