Horticultural courses - Learning curve

We ask how horticulture courses and colleges are faring in the new world of higher fees.

Training at Writtle College - image: Writtle College
Training at Writtle College - image: Writtle College

The new academic year begins in September, and despite the rises in student fees and the continuing recession, the major horticultural training colleges are still confident that they will find enough students to fill their places.

Further education courses — those equivalent to GCSE and A-level standard — are still experiencing a strong demand. However, among the higher education courses — equivalent to university standard — demand has noticeably slackened since last year.

Tom Cole, head of faculty for land-based courses at Writtle College in Essex, says further education is thriving. "Places are definitely filling up. We will be full for courses at levels 2 and 3, although at level 1 [intended for students with poorer academic grades] we may still have vacancies," he says. He currently offers 28 places at level 3, 20 at level 2 and 16 at level 1.

The trend for people to enter horticulture as a second career is continuing, Cole adds.

"Although 80 per cent of our horticulture students are aged between 16 and 19, every year we see a slight increase in people aged over 19 and in mature students aged over 25."

Mixed picture

Capel Manor, which only provides further education courses, is still reporting strong demand. However, managers fear that the situation could change next year. Capel chief executive Dr

Steve Dowbiggin explains: "This is the last year that people over the age of 19 will get any Government funding. From September 2013, that will end." The changes might mean a surge of students this year and a shortage in future years.

Dowbiggin says demand is uneven across the various centres. At Capel’s west London centre in Gunnersbury, for instance, demand is slack — "We’re taking out adverts to try to fill the places"—while demand at the main centre in Enfield is high.

There is high demand for level 3 courses and many new entrants are coming as career-changers. "We have a very high quality of students coming forward," says Dowbiggin.
There is also growth in work-related courses — both as apprenticeships and as short courses.

Much of this increase relates to arboriculture. "It’s a big area. We have more potential employers than students. The quality of candidates is exceptional," Dowbiggin adds.

At Myerscough in Lancashire, there is also a reasonable demand. Director of skills and enterprise Paul Morton comments: "We are doing okay. We are splitting people between horticulture, sports turf and landscape. We have around 30 recruits at level 2."

Although the numbers seem relatively healthy, the college will be recruiting throughout the summer. "We could take more than we have now," says Morton. There is also a nagging fear that some of the people who have signed on to courses could simply not turn up. "They have only paid a £95 deposit. We won’t know the exact numbers until the start of term," he reveals.

At Reaseheath, there is a mixed picture. "We never find out what’s going on until very late," explains head of horticulture and floristry Iain Clarke. "Last year, further education recruitment was dire. This year, it is looking slightly better."

At Pershore, there is also a high degree of uncertainty. Horticulture lecturer John Everest says: "A lot of people apply after they get their GCSE results at the end of August. If they do badly, they might want to come in at level 2. If they do well, they come in at level 3." Applicant numbers for arboriculture and organic horticulture are currently high, while other subjects are less well subscribed, he adds.

In higher education, the picture is less rosy. With fees now anything up to £9,000 per year, the number of applicants has slumped — in Britain, the number of university applications fell by around nine per cent this year. Horticultural colleges are feeling the effects of this.

At the University of Greenwich, which runs courses at Hadlow, senior lecturer for landscape Robert Holden says: "It’s all a bit confused." The department currently takes around 90 students per year but Holden says while the number of applicants for a course such as garden design has gone down by 4.5 per cent, the number of acceptances has actually risen by 4.5 per cent.

However, he adds: We don’t know how many will actually turn up on the first day of term. It’s a new financial structure. We’ve had 20 years of growth, but this has now stopped."

Up and down

Other colleges are also reporting uncertainty. A Writtle spokesman says students are interested in doing shorter higher education courses. "People are thinking quite carefully before committing to degree courses. We are receiving a lot of interest in foundation degrees, possibly because people are looking at funding for two years, rather than doing a three-year degree," he adds.

Some courses have had a rise in applicants. ‘"Applications for our graduate conversion courses, which lead to a masters, have gone up by 10 per cent,’ says Holden. "Some of our MA courses have had a 20 per cent rise in numbers. Some programmes report a rise of 50 per cent in the number of applications from overseas. There is strong demand from India and China."

However, even here, there is a large element of uncertainty. "Because of the new border regulations, we don’t know how many of these applicants will be allowed into Britain. We’re very optimistic and we have a very good international reputation, but it’s too soon to say how things will work out."

Some colleges are changing their courses to make them more financially attractive to students.

At Pershore, where the cost of an HNC has doubled, Everest says: "We normally take around 30 students for an HND course, which can lead to a BSc but we have only filled half the places."

To counter this, the college has devised the Pershore Diploma, pitched at the same level as the HNC offered through the University of Worcester.

The course will cover the same topics and have the same standard of teaching, but Pershore is able to offer the course for just over £3,000 — around half the cost of an HNC. Everest explains: "There is a lot of interest in these diplomas. It’s not a recognised university qualification, but we are recruiting on the strength of our name."

Reaching out

Most colleges are now seriously promoting their courses. After a poor level of applications last year for further education, Reaseheath introduced a policy of recruiting from local schools.

"We’ve worked with schools, job centres and unemployed groups to get people in the NEET category [those not in education, employment or training]. This seems to have paid off," says Clarke.

Reaseheath also had a presence at RHS Flower Show Tatton Park — "We’ve had a lot of interest from this" — and has used the media. "We do a lot of adverts and talks on radio and television," Clarke adds. Last year, the college only managed to attract around 12 students in the 16- to 18-year-old category. This year, 30 people in this age group have so far signed up.

Some of Reaseheath’s courses are still struggling to find students, however, and a new foundation degree in horticultural business innovation may have to be cancelled. "Nobody wants to do it. If we don’t get six or seven candidates, we will have to put the course on hold,"

Clarke laments. Similarly, the horticulture BSc course has attracted only four or five recruits. "It’s not proving viable and we may have to stop it," he admits.

The situation is not totally bleak, though. Reaseheath has been inundated with applicants for a mentorship programme in which students are adopted by professional firms and given at least six months’ paid work. "It’s an intense level 3 course and so far we have found 10 good mentoring organisations to take these students in hand," Clarke points out.

Another positive is the rise in RHS courses. Because these are suitable for keen amateurs as well as aspiring professionals, many of them are being taken by people who are considering a change of career. At Reaseheath, for example, 120 people are doing level 2 and 3 RHS courses.

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