Permaculture course too expensive? Let’s add up the real costs
READING THROUGH COMMENTS on a Facebook post recently I came upon one familiar to providers of permaculture education — the high price of permaculture design courses.
The commentator was a little disparaging, saying that the cost of design courses was so high they were unaffordable and that because of this permaculture has become the province of people seeking ways to make money.
Ignoring the assumptions embedded in the statement above (that the cost of permaculture courses is due to the motivation of permaculture educators to make money), let’s be clear that this is not a new allegation. Were you around the permaculture milieu in the 1990s you would have heard it then. And you would have heard it since. Like a platypus surfacing for a gasp of air every so often, the allegation of profiteering comes and goes through the decades.
That doesn’t get away from the possibility it might be true. Yes, a four figure sum is unaffordable to many people and can be a barrier to obtaining a permaculture education if you are living on a government allowance or a pension, are a tertiary student or on a part time income.
It is not as if educators have chosen to ignore this. It is a dilemma that has troubled many but that they find difficulty in addressing in a way that would provide cheaper courses at the same time that it provides them an economically sustainable livelihood.
To sidestep the high cost of design courses some educators have offered discounted training. What is interesting is that these have usually been one-off courses. The reason for that may lie in the hidden costs of offering the permaculture design course, costs those trainers didn’t take into account. Sometimes the trainers were offering their first course and in those situations offering a cheap course makes sense because students would be unlikely to receive the thorough education they receive from established and experienced educators. Inexperienced educators offering courses have simply re-taught what they were taught by their teacher without the benefit of experience that comes from implementing permaculture works.
So, are design courses too expensive? Let’s take a look at what it takes to offer a well-organised permaculture design course taught by people qualified by knowledge and experience to offer a quality educational product.
The going price for a permaculture design course spans the region from AU$1500 to AU$2500. There are cheaper, of course, and there may well be some that are more expensive.
As mentioned above, some of those cheaper courses have been people graduating from a permaculture design course and proceeding to offer their own without the learning and insights that come with experience. Others have been wiser people wanting to make a start in permaculture education and, knowing they are still learning and that their first few courses are where they will learn, offer a cheaper rate commensurate with the anticipated quality of the learning experience. Let me say that this is a good strategy that can only boost the educator’s reputation as it is based on honesty, and because students are forewarned.
You can see why people finding courses too expensive and who have little spare change in their pocket, but who are looking for better ways to live, might be put off by the cost of design courses.
Here I’m not talking of those very cheap design courses such as a community permaculture association might offer. They might be good or bad depending on the quality of teaching. I’m talking about those of educators offering the permaculture design course as a means of deriving at least some of their regular income.
To do that you need a legal structure such as a small business or social enterprise model, or that of sole trader. You need to register these to obtain your ABN (Australian Business Number). Doing that is free, but for educators that is where free stops.
Costs mount up
To teach permaculture as a sustained income stream — you can only do it cheap or free for a very limited time — we need to realise that we live in a litigious society. That means we need insurance, possibly public liability, malpractice or other business insurance. One reason for this is something all too often ignored by permaculture educators whether offering courses and workshops on a commercial or non-commercial basis. It is this: educators, permaculture advisors of any kind, really, are legally liable for the consequences of what they teach.
- insurance is just the start of the costs cascade:
will the educator earn sufficient to have to pay GST?
- if you hire a venue for your course then you have to pay for that
- if you offer accommodation and food rather than have students find their own, then that’s a cost that quickly adds up; the educator will have a hard time teaching and preparing food, so educators may have to hire someone to take care of feeding students
- even if you don’t offer accommodation and meals you will probably supply morning and afternoon tea, and a permaculture course will presumably offer more than instant coffee and sweet biscuits — this is another cost
- then there’s all the equipment educators need — gardening tools in sufficient quantity for all students, perhaps a projector, most likely a laptop, construction materials and tools, reference books, seeds — more costs
- before the first student sits down you have to let people know that your course is on offer — this means an advertising budget or, at the very least, time spent maintaining your website and promoting your course through social media; even if you don’t really like Facebook the fact that 95 percent of Australian social media users make use of the service, and that it is the location of most online discussion around permaculture, means you need to set up an account to advertise your course there anyway, though doing that is free; Facebook offers paid ads that some permaculture educators have made use of
- The importance of promoting your course is emphasised by the reality that permaculture education, especially at the design certificate level, is a competitive and limited market. To make ends meet financially, even to achieve cost recovery, relies on attracting a minimum number of students.
You can see how the costs start to add up. Some, like insurance, are annual costs (and they are not cheap). Others, like advertising, are recurrent with every course.
You can also see that your expenditure starts well before your course start date. Advertising requires lead time, especially if going into print publications with their deadlines or for Facebook ads. Food planning is done well in advance, as is finding someone to manage it and buy the food shortly before course commencement. The same for hiring a venue which must be done well in advance of the course. These are some of the costs you face before the first day of your course.
Before you even get to this stage, however, you might have checked the course schedules of other permaculture educators so that you don’t offer your course at the same time as theirs. Doing that creates competition in a limited market, potentially reducing the number of students for both or you and reducing your financially viability.
There realise that there is the risk that just because you plan and advertise a design course doesn’t mean you will attract sufficient students to break even financially, let alone come out with a modest surplus. Surplus? Yes, it is necessary to those seeking to make a livelihood through permaculture education because of an additional layer of costs — those of equipment maintenance and replacement and new software, for instance. And, of course, like everyone else you need to pay for your living expenses such as food, accommodation and other personal costs.
So, to set up to teach permaculture and establish yourself as a reputable educational provider calls for a little entrepreneurial spirit and an acceptance that you are going to risk your money. We have seen that becoming a provider is expensive and that it is this expense — all of those itemised above and perhaps others I have inadvertently left out — that adds to the cost of permaculture design courses.
So, when those among us who are tempted to say that design course education is too expensive, let’s add up all of those costs first.