Curtin muted on Muresk 'backflip'

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Curtin University remains tight-lipped over rumours it wants to re-ignite and strengthen its relationship with the Muresk Institute in Northam to give its Bachelor of Agribusiness course further credibility.

The Curtin Bachelor of Agribusiness course was previously based at Muresk's Northam premises, but declining enrolment numbers meant management of the campus was handed over to the Department of Training and Workforce Development in July 2012, and the Bachelor of Agribusiness course was relocated to Curtin's Bentley campus.

But following last year's appointment of Curtin University's new vice-chancellor Deborah Terry, who is highly supportive of agriculture, industry sources say Curtin now recognises the importance of having a stronger regional presence and wants to rebuild its relationship with the Northam campus.

Curtin University director of external relations Jane Coole admitted there had been a working relationship with Muresk, but said there had been no conversation between Curtin University and the State Government about purchasing the Northam campus, estimated to be worth about $30 million.

She also denied discussions were held about Muresk becoming a formal tenant of the Northam campus.

Other current tenants include Charles Sturt University and C.Y. O'Connor, which offer the Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management, and University of Queensland, which offers the Diploma in Agriculture.

Ms Coole said Curtin University had, in the past three years, been engaging with Muresk Institute's general manager Prue Jenkins and senior executives at the Department of Workforce and Training about how Curtin could engage with and continue to support Muresk.

"Currently Curtin University takes its Agribusiness students up there for some practical field work, and we have research trials based up on the premises," Ms Coole said.

She said Curtin had been working closely with academics and researchers to look at what was being offered in Curtin's Agribusiness degree to ensure ongoing improvements that met evolving industry needs.

Professor Terry is planning a meeting with key alumni and stakeholders in late November to discuss the future of agriculture and meeting educational needs in WA.

Ms Coole said amid strong demand for agribusiness graduates, enrolment numbers still struggled and this was the reason for Curtin University's exit of Muresk in the first place.

"At the moment we are encountering a strong number of first preference applications into agriculture for 2016; we are close to 50 which is good compared to previous years," she said.

"So we are starting to grow student numbers in this space again which is terrific for industry."

Ms Coole attributed that success partially to the centralised location for the course.

"Students typically need a part time job whilst at university, but these are hard to find when based out at the Muresk campus," she said.

Former Muresk Agribusiness student and Muresk Old Collegians Association member Roy Duncanson said Professor Terry would be questioning the reasons behind Curtin's exiting of Muresk.

"If Curtin wants to grow its agricultural courses, it really needs to have a regional base to give it credibility," he said.

"UWA has its own property - a farm in Pingelly. Murdoch leased a farm last year in Whitby Falls in Serpentine Jarrahdale, but Curtin has nothing of its own and the course is Perth-focussed.

"Now Curtin University has realised agribusiness is trendy and is backpedalling."

Mr Duncanson said because Professor Terry, having joined Curtin last year, did not carry the baggage of exiting Muresk, she would likely be keen to rebuild the relationship in a bid to increase enrolment numbers.

MOCA president, Pingelly farmer and CBH board member John Hassell, said WA universities needed to offer tertiary agribusiness on a bigger scale.

But he said a very good degree in agribusiness management was already available at Muresk by CY O'Connor and Charles Sturt, and his son had enrolled in this course for next year.

However, he said the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre handbook, which advertises tertiary courses in WA, was dominated by the four main universities.

Therefore Charles Sturt and CY O'Connor cannot promote its agribusiness management course without spending vast amounts of money.

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