AGRICULTURAL colleges need to make their courses affordable and more accessible if they are to keep up with changes in the countryside economy, according to a report on the sector.
National training organisations and lifelong learning partnerships will work with agricultural colleges to meet the skills requirements of increasingly diverse rural industries, under proposals contained in the review of agricultural courses by the Further Education Funding Council.
Agriculture accounted for 78,000 enrolments in 1997-98 - most of them at specialist colleges, but with a significant minority at general FE colleges - on courses ranging from amenity horticulture and floristry to countryside management and animal care.
But the report says that as agricultural courses become spread across different college types, they need to be rationalised and targeted at skill shortages. These changes will have to be achieved against a background of increasing financial insecurity.
Land-based colleges had more money problems (29 per cent were in the "at risk" category C 18 months ago compared with 19 per cent of the sector as a whole) and, the report says, their "financial health is declining more rapidly than other college tyes". Some colleges have sought stability through merger - there are now 26 specialist colleges compared to 34 at incorporation.
They also had a greater proportion of poor and unsatisfactory grades 4 and 5 for cross-college provision reflecting weaknesses in governance, management and quality assurance.
The report notes that recruitment of full-time students has been "buoyant", increasing by 34 per cent in the two years to 1997-98, and retention and achievement rates are above average for all colleges.
With more and more students living at home, the rural location of many agricultural colleges has become a disincentive to some students. But the report says that increasing levels of student support could help to stem the trend.
It concludes: "The key messages to providers from employers are that cost and access to training are the main difficulties for the small, often remote, businesses so characteristic of the industry.
"Non-participation in education is not just a factor of social deprivation but a matter of accessibility ... flexible patterns of learning and imaginative ways of solving transport difficulties are required if there is to be increased participation within rural areas."