Friday, December 14, 2012

Richmond Ramble 2 - end of an era at Hawkesbury Agriculture College

Continuing the story from Richmond Ramble 1 - all about some bulls, Richmond's role as one of Governor Macquarie's five towns was only part of my reason for visiting. Most of all, I wanted to visit Hawkesbury Agricultural College, now the University of Western Sydney - Hawkesbury. I had never been there, and it seemed an appropriate time to go.

The College's story is best covered in a debate held in the NSW Legislative Council on 9 September 2011 to mark a 120 year celebration.  

The College was established in 1891 by the NSW Department of Agriculture to provide practical farm training, This is an early photo of the college.  I chose it because it shows a girl. Women were not allowed to enrol in the College until 1971!

The College was very much a working farm. The training provided had a strong practical focus.

In 1974, the College became a College of Advanced Education as part of the changes sweeping Australian education that I have been describing in my higher education series. New courses were added such as nursing, but it remained a very small close knit institution. As change continued, the College became part of the University of Western Sydney in 1989. This was a wrench for many. Here I quote the Hon Niall Blair from the parliamentary debate I referred to earlier.

In 1989 Hawkesbury college joined the University of Western Sydney. Some of the traditionalists found this a hard transition because a new logo was to be used and the name "Hawkesbury" was going to be lost. Throughout that transitional period students were given the choice to have their degrees or diplomas awarded to them either from Hawkesbury Agriculture College or from the University of Western Sydney. Many students chose to have the name of Hawkesbury Agricultural College on their qualification, and I think I am right in saying that the Hon. Paul Green was one of them.

I am sure that all this must sound very interesting, but why am I being drawn to the old College now for my first visit? Well, just a few months after the parliamentary debate I heard a radio story that the first year agriculture course at Hawkesbury had been dropped because less than ten students enrolled.

This change is part of a broader change pattern. In the 1980s, there were 23 campuses around Australia providing agriculture and agricultural science degrees. By 2011, this had shrunk to just nine. Primary production may be coming back into fashion as a growth sector for Australia to fill an emerging global food gap, but this is not reflected in student numbers.

There is another factor as well, the growing homogenisation in Australian higher education flowing from mass institutions and mass education. Specialist organisations have to sell to their niches, whereas mass organisations are more passive. They tailor offerings that will attract the largest number of students in general; course offerings adapt to changing student demand. Whatever the market arguments, the end result has been a continuing diminution in niche offerings.

I had never been to the Hawkesbury Agriculture College. Now seemed appropriate to visit to mark the end of an era,  

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