Horticulture courses fine-tuned

College courses are changing and apprenticeships are thriving but higher fees now mean students are less inclined to enter higher education, Jack Shamash finds.

Education: level three students are getting headhunted - image: Free Images
Education: level three students are getting headhunted - image: Free Images

Apprenticeships have been the big success story in land-based education in recent years, and land-based colleges once again are predicting an increase in the number of young people going into horticulture apprenticeships over the next year.

However, there are concerns that the high fees involved are deterring students from doing degree courses. "We’re seeing a huge downturn in applications for degrees," confirms John-Paul Bromley, curriculum leader in horticulture and arboriculture at Pershore College in Worcestershire.

"There is a perception that you won’t get a good return. People are wary about getting into debt when they’re thinking of going into a career that will give them a salary of around £20,000 a year."

Many students who have completed level-three courses see no advantage in continuing to degree level. "Our level-three students are getting lots of job offers," adds Bromley. "They are actually being headhunted. They would rather go straight into industry than stay on for a degree."

Some universities are simply cutting back on the number of degree places. The University of Reading, for example, which until a couple of years ago listed horticulture as a degree option, no longer runs undergraduate courses.

A more complicated picture

In other areas the picture is more complicated. Among under-18s doing level one, demand has been patchy. At Pershore, level-one courses are down on last year. Full capacity is around 25, but the college has only nine or 10 confirmed applicants so far. "Many schools seem to be discouraging students from coming to courses," says Bromley. "They want to hang onto their students — if they lose students, they lose income."

However, Pershore is still getting a high number of applicants for level-two courses. More than 20 people have so far applied for courses starting in autumn. Full capacity is 25. "Each year we see an increase in applicants," says Bromley. At level three, the picture is slightly different.

"Most of the people doing level three already have some links to the industry — usually their parents are involved," he adds. But he stresses that demand remains steady and a newly-introduced course in sports turf is proving popular at level three.

At Reaseheath College in Cheshire, curriculum area manager in horticulture Sarah Hopkinson points out that in level two, where there is a target of 20 students, numbers have fallen. However, the college is meeting its targets for level three.

At Hadlow College in Kent, numbers are stable, with more than 250 students currently studying at levels two and three.

Capel Manor College, which runs a series of campuses in London, boasts particularly healthy figures. Among 16- to 18-year-olds, demand is rising by 20 per cent a year. However, restrictions on funding for over-18s have hit hard. Until last year the courses cost around £1,000 annually. Because of the restrictions, this has gone up considerably. According to Capel Manor principal Steve Dowbiggin, this has led to a fall from 1,800 to 1,200 ­applicants and has been particularly bad for career-changers, who are generally self-funding.

Apprenticeships are still proving very popular. Pershore has 250 students doing apprenticeships. This figure is rising by around 10 per cent a year. At Capel Manor, the apprenticeship numbers have increased from 240 to 300.

The colleges are using special links with industry to boost their courses. Reaseheath is collaborating with Sainsbury’s to create apprenticeships in production horticulture.

The college stresses that the apprenticeships do not have to be given to firms that trade with Sainsbury’s. Similarly, Capel Manor is linking up with tree suppliers to create apprenticeships in arboriculture and Pershore is now running apprenticeships for The Royal Parks.

The apprenticeships are being run with a wide range of organisations. Pershore, for example, has close links with Sanctuary Housing Association and Midland Regional Growers, which produces ornamentals and vegetables. In addition, a large number of apprenticeships are run with small local traders.

Links with industry are particularly important for the colleges. Capel Manor, for example, has a lot of courses that are entirely funded by payments from employers. Dowbiggin points out that student numbers are growing by 10 per cent a year. "Employers want us to design bespoke courses for their particular staff," he explains.

Practical marketing helping

While there is concern about the future of higher education — degrees and foundation degrees — in horticulture, Reaseheath is having some success in its new higher-education programme.

A foundation degree in garden and landscape design that was recently given the go-ahead has so far attracted 12 applicants.

New BSc degrees, which have recently been validated, are also gaining interest. A new degree in fresh produce and ornamental production as well as another in landscape management will also be starting up. The target for each of these courses is also 12 students.

Hopkinson believes that a practical marketing strategy is helping the courses to develop. "We like to show the choice of careers available and we also stress that although people may acquire big debts they may not have to pay them back — especially if they are self-employed," she says.

Dowbiggin applauds the continual demand for horticulture courses but is quick to point out that the Government should not be complacent. "We need more capacity and more money," he says. "We’ve got an ageing workforce and we need to recruit and keep good workers."

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