Cutting the Grass

Why cutting funding for Environmental Science degrees hurts us all

Despite the wrath of small town gossips and their government-intelligence-agency level of detection and communication skills, I’ll let you in on a few of my secrets. I’m a guy who grew up in a small rural community in north-western Victoria. My existence until my late teens was as boring as you’d expect – the same people, the same cars, the same joy in telling tourists the story of a botched exorcism that took place a couple of towns over. It was a nice, calm life punctuated by weekend sport, seasonal harvesting on the farm, and in later years, falling asleep face down in the back paddock of a friend’s family’s farm after smuggling out and then binging Dad’s Jim Beam and Cokes. Perhaps what made things different, the metaphorical Moses splitting the red sea, was my goal to go to university. 

My love for the land I grew up on is so big and whole and obsessive I found myself drawn to a degree in Environment Science

When I revealed this goal – somewhere between an under 16s football premiership and the long, hot summer days just before my final year of school began – I realised I was putting myself out to be questioned by absolutely everyone. 

“Kids from ‘round here don’t usually end up in the city”

“You could get an apprenticeship and have money in the bank”

“Why do you hate it here?”

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these questions got to me, and niggling away at my sanity like a mozzie bite. I’ve never hated my home town. I love my home town and could never imagine myself living anywhere other than in rural Australia. People in the city spend too much time worried about shoes to buy – and while this isn’t the crux of my article I just wanted to put it out there that I think it’s weird and a sign you have too much money – and I am certain that a country life is the life for me. My love for the land I grew up on is so big and whole and obsessive I found myself drawn to a degree in Environment Science. I want to have the knowledge and skills to better support the farming community back home that supported me and my family our whole lives. When the Morrison Government recently announced that funding for tertiary environmental science courses would be cut up to 29%, my heart broke. Not only does ScoMo not see that value in Environmental Science for the nation generally, he doesn’t understand where Environmental Science can bring country kids to universities, and give them the education required to support their rural communities back home. 

the role of the environmental scientist perhaps more critical than ever before

Environmental science isn’t just about watching the grass grow – you learn how and why it grows too. Sometimes you ever take specimens of the grown grass and do reports on it! But Environmental Science also helps us – and that includes the farmers and agricultural industry that supports so very much of Australia’s economy – understand how and why particular areas produce a yield of a size and quality, what may grow best in an area, and how factors such as residential development or water pollution can go onto impact something as small as the cereal we eat for breakfast or as large as our trade opportunities with China. In an era where climate change is not simply a topic of conversation, but an actual, present event taking place before our eyes, the role of the environmental scientist perhaps more critical than ever before. 

Governments also love talking about the ‘rural/urban achievement gap’. Its easy to fall into the idea that country kids are all poor academic achievers because they don’t have the teachers, resources, or personal discipline to do well in school. Its easy to believe that because it isn’t the truth. For myself and many of my peers, the fact of the matter is that school didn’t feature much that was relevant to our lives in rural Australia. While I’m sure the triggers of the First World War are interesting and important to know, I couldn’t really give a stuff about them when my family’s financial livelihood depended on us having a particularly good harvest yield in a year where we didn’t get nearly as much rain as we needed. Environmental Science became my shining light to stay in school and do well because it was a university course, and bonafide area of academia that wasn’t only relevant to a life on the farm, but could help support the agricultural industry in an uncertain future. The country needs Environmental Scientists, and Environmental Science research and practice needs young people who have a deep understanding of the land. They support and enhance each other, and yet the relationship between the two is often overlooked. 

We need to recalibrate our problem-solving skills and recognise that sometimes different problems can share similar resolutions

All university degrees cost money, there’s no doubt about that. But by decreasing the student contribution to Environmental Science degrees as well as decreasing the Commonwealth support at the same time means that for many young people like me, a career in Environmental Science just isn’t financially feasible anymore. So we stay on the farms and live with the stress of yields and weather patterns until some hotshot from the city who has only ever seen farms on reruns of McLeod’s Daughters and Farmer Wants a Wife strolls in to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong and out of date. There’s a clear line of opportunity for eager young rural students that the Government has actively severed, and people don’t seem to mind because maybe young people who grew up on farms should just stay there. 

It’s funny, how the Government and the public can be so quick to identify issues; climate change, rural academic under-achievement, the need for Environmental Scientists, and yet just blankly refuse to engage their brains for longer than 15 seconds in finding a resolution. We need to shake ourselves out of this complacency, and rethink why country kids are disengaged from school (hint: because of an irrelevant curriculum), why country kids aren’t as likely to attend university (hint: because its too expensive and again, irrelevant with no immediate gratification), or why farmers and communities in the nation’s agricultural belts might be struggling (hint: because some environmental scientists aren’t actually familiar with the specific characteristics of a region, and the young people who could become those informed scientists are put off from studying because of an irrelevant secondary curriculum and outlandish tertiary costs). We need to recalibrate our problem-solving skills and recognise that sometimes different problems can share similar resolutions. Most of all, we need to recognise that country students have so much to give to the world of academia and scientific research, but we need to provide them the opportunities to do so in the first place. 

So give me space to hitch up my horse and put down my ten-gallon stetson, because this cowboy is coming to the big smoke, and for the sake of other country kids, and the environmental security of the nation, he refuses to be the last of his kind. 

Justin Granger is studying Environmental Science and hopes to get away from the big smoke very soon.

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