Report calls for overhaul of agricultural education
Chaired by Professor Frans Swanepoel of the University of Pretoria, the study, released on 27 September, identified three key areas in need of attention: substantial institutional reform, stimulating innovation in the sector, and ending the fragmented way in which education and training in the sector are managed.
Titled Revitalising Agricultural Education and Training in South Africa, the report notes that agriculture is a key component of the South African economy, delivering more jobs per rand invested than any other productive sector. It remains an important means to address rural poverty and food insecurity. The entire value chain of agriculture contributed 12% to the country’s gross domestic product in 2013, according to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Currently, responsibility for agricultural education and training is shared between research councils and several government departments. Furthermore, agricultural colleges are administered at a provincial rather than national level.
In order to address fragmentation in the system, the study panel called for the establishment of a National Council for Agricultural Education and Training to ensure the inclusion and participation of all linked departments and critical stakeholders in the sector.
In a recent article on the study published in The Conversation, Swanepoel said the work of the council would be to coordinate their various policies and programmes.
However, given the current moratorium in South Africa on establishing statutory bodies, the recommendation is to appoint a Ministerial Committee to oversee this process.
According to Swanepoel, the cabinet took a decision in 2015 to move agricultural colleges from provinces to the national Department of Higher Education and Training. A task team was appointed to investigate the implications of the transfer, but as yet there had been little progress.
“The panel has made a strong recommendation that the task team’s work should be expedited. And that sufficient resources should be allocated to make sure that there is progress,” said Swanepoel.
The panel’s report says that attention needs to be given to institutional capacity and resources.
It notes that funding and resource allocation are needed to enable institutions to provide practical and vocationally relevant training as schools lacked capacity to teach agricultural sciences because of inadequate infrastructure for practicals. Student funding support for agricultural education was also needed as agricultural students in colleges currently have no access to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
Those seeking to pursue agricultural education at post-school level, specifically in colleges and universities, were often confronted with the problem of having inadequate mathematics results, it notes. Furthermore, most institutions were focused on academic programmes at the expense of the lower level and intermediate skills.
Over-emphasis on university-level training
“Complex social and economic factors drive the current over-emphasis on university-level training. Proposed solutions to address the matter must focus on ensuring the quality of education, exposure to cutting-edge practical training, and employability of graduates, in order to be successful,” states the report.
It also notes a shortage in registered qualifications in the field of agriculture in the National Qualifications Framework. Students were primarily educated in commercial agriculture with little focus on smallholder farmers or other social and human dimensions of agriculture.
It identifies the need for multi- and trans-disciplinary approaches to curricula that address modern-day topics, find solutions to grand challenges, such as climate change, and drive economic development. The current training fails to meet the needs of industry and bridge the skills-knowledge-practice gap.
The panel also found that a new cadre of agricultural educators is needed. The profile of academics in terms of race in South Africa remains predominantly white, with at least five out of 10 academics with a PhD in a science field being white in 2014.
Another finding is that agriculture is not a first choice career among school children, which creates challenges for the sourcing of high-quality students for post-school studies in the field.
“Within higher education, there are very clearly articulated career pathways within academia.
"There is, however, limited understanding or awareness of the vast number of agribusiness and entrepreneurship careers that exist along the entire food and nutrition value chain. This lack of awareness is evident at both school and higher education level,” states the report.
The study panel recommended that South Africa pilot test a land-grant type model in South Africa that links research, education, training and extension.
Writing in The Conversation, Swanepoel said land-grant systems have been successfully implemented in countries ranging from the United States to Brazil and India.
“Over the past six decades the US has built 60 land-grant universities. Academics hold appointments with dual responsibilities for teaching, on one hand, and research or extension, on the other. In their capacity as extension officers, academics advise and assist farmers on the ground, with the goal of ensuring sustainable production and rural development. They then bring this experience back to the university.
"They facilitate the flow of information both ways – bringing new innovative research and technology to farmers, and feeding knowledge about field problems back into the university to inform the research and teaching agenda.”
The study panel found that initial findings support the assertion that adapted, context-sensitive land-grant type models have high potential for success in the South African context.
The report also recommends that the links between research, teaching and extension should be better coordinated. Greater cooperation between the Agricultural Research Council and the National Research Foundation is also urgently needed.
Joint working group
A joint working group between the two bodies is proposed to coordinate and integrate efforts towards achieving a strengthened agri-food value chain research environment, including funding of postgraduate education and research through the development of a resource allocation model to support agricultural high-level training.
The report recommends improvement in extension and rural advisory services as well as enhanced research support to drive entrepreneurship and development.
South African institutions are urged to identify ways in which they can participate in continental partnerships that can strengthen agricultural education training.
Networks such as the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture provide a platform for this type of collaboration, it notes.
The panel recommends that the findings of the study be presented by the Minister of Science and Technology to the national cabinet for urgent attention. Once the ministerial committee has proposed and approved a coordinated governance framework, human capital needs and related qualifications should be developed.
The study panel also recommended the establishment of a bursary fund for persons training to be educators in agricultural training, with an internship service component of at least two years to retain skills.