Glenormiston College looks to a future beyond the fork in the road

IT took less than a decade for Glenormiston College to turn from a buzzing centre of agricultural education to a bureaucratic headache in desperate need of students.

Some blame mismanagement by outside forces. Others blame a cultural shift against agricultural training. 

What is clear is the 42-year-old institution is at a fork in the road, following South West TAFE’s decision to pull out of a lease agreement two months ago. Former lecturers, past students and other interested community members are expected to gather for a meeting next week to discuss what the future use of the historic homestead should be.

The people who know and love Glenormiston College understood the reasons behind the decision. Enrolment numbers had been declining for years as rival courses and training groups vied for a shrinking market of agricultural scholars.

No students had lived on the campus a year before it closed. The empty dormitories were a stark contrast to the college’s 1970s heyday, when administrators had to knock back students due to high demand.

Former animal management lecturer Dick Wigan remembers the era well. 

He arrived at Glenor-miston as a 26-year-old school teacher with an interest in farming. 

With only the most basic materials, he was part of the group that set about starting the college from scratch.

“We were given a desk, a few biros and some paper and we had to work out how the course would operate,” Mr Wigan recalled.

“This was back in 1970, when there wasn’t much analysis of the management side of farming. 

“So we looked at the prospectus from Marcus Oldham College (in Geelong), looked at what was happening overseas at Lincoln University in New Zealand and Seale-Hayne College in Great Britain, and just worked it out from there.”

The Glenormiston homestead was bought by the state government from the Black family in 1948 with the intention of establishing an agricultural school. 

After several changes of government in early 1950s Spring Street, the idea was put on the backburner and the homestead used as a research station of sorts.

Agriculture Minister Gilbert Chandler revived the idea in the late 1960s as leading farmers raised concerns over the lack of farm-based education in Victoria. Within only a few years, the college was able to accept its first intake of students.

Former lecturer Jeff Lawes said the college was packed to the rafters in its first decade. The site could accommodate more than 120 students in any one year, although demand outstripped supply.

“The place was bursting at the seams,” Mr Lawes said. “Farming families saw agriculture as an attractive career option for their sons and daughters, so Glenormiston was actually having to knock back students. 

“Most of those enrolled were 19, 20, 21 years old. 

“They’d spent some time working on the family farm before deciding to do some further study. 

“Surprisingly, we had a lot of students from beef and cropping backgrounds even though the south-west is largely dairy-focused. 

“Plenty came from Tasmania as well because Tassie didn’t have a college like Glenormiston.”

Glenormiston College’s flying start may have been fuelled by a latent demand for on-farm training in the south-west but that wasn’t the full picture. 

Before the gates even opened, staff members visited schools throughout the region to promote the new college.

Founding principal Bob Luff said the college’s strong enrolment numbers were largely due to a sustained promotional campaign through south-west technical and high schools.

“We certainly had to sell the idea of Glenormiston,” Mr Luff said.

 “The phrase ‘agri-business’ wasn’t a well-known concept at that time and when it came to agriculture, most people just thought that the only jobs going were the traditional farmer-operator role. 

“Glenormiston had the most up-to-date facilities and teaching methods, so we hammered that point home.”

The college set a student prerequisite of at least 12 months’ practical farming experience. The 1971 intake met that benchmark easily with nearly all students the sons of south-west farmers.

“It may seem simple but that prerequisite ensured we had people who really wanted to know more about farming,” Mr Luff said. 

“If you’ve worked in the industry, you’re under no illusions about what it entails. 

“So the students we had at Glenormiston not only wanted to learn about agriculture, they already had a prior practical knowledge in agriculture.”

Glenormiston was subsumed into a statewide group called the Victorian Colleges of Agriculture and Horticulture (VCAH) following the Cain government’s 1982 election victory. 

The south-west college continued to operate as it had in the 1970s, except with the addition of an equine management course.

But it was another bureaucratic change — the late 1980s Dawkins revolution — which altered Glenormiston and shifted control to Melbourne University. 

Opinion is split on whether management from the state capital caused the college’s slow demise.

“Melbourne and La Trobe universities were the only two in higher education that had agricultural degrees and it was a choice between either of the two,” Mr Wigan said. 

“So it gave Glenormiston students the opportunity to move on to a degree if they chose to.

“On the other hand, universities secure most of their funding through research and many people felt they saw the students as a secondary consideration. The money wasn’t there for the uni.”

South West TAFE took over management of Glenormiston seven years ago but was forced in October to end its association, citing declining student numbers.

Higher Education Minister Peter Hall is believed to favour the homestead operating as a college into the future but many questions have arisen as to what path Glenormiston will take.

Geoff Lawes said a use for Glenormiston should be found soon in order to prevent the historic homestead from decaying.

“If Dookie — the state’s main agricultural college — is struggling, then I think Glenormiston will have to be a different set-up to what we’ve seen in the past,” the former lecturer said.

“It’s set up for educational purposes, maybe a more generalist approach is the way to go.

 “The one thing that needs to be ensured is that it doesn’t sit unoccupied for too long because the maintenance bill will grow and grow.”

Bob Luff is confident demand for agricultural training will bounce back and pointed to the bidding war over Warrnambool Cheese and Butter as proof that dairy research and development has a bright future.

“Maybe short courses are the answer,” he said. 

“Computers have radically shifted how people in their 20s learn, so they can stay on the farm and still study. 

“What Glenormiston could provide is accommodation for week-long, fortnight-long block learning; where you get all the practical learning done in an allocated period of time. 

“That’s just one option. I’m sure there’s plenty of others.”

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