Agron­omy Ed­u­ca­tion:

Af­ter be­ing long ne­glected, China’s top uni­ver­si­ties are lin­ing up to of­fer agron­omy pro­grams in a bid to at­tract fund­ing and gain higher sta­tus

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Yang Zhi­jie

Grow­ing Am­bi­tions

On Au­gust 31, 2018, Sun Yat-sen Uni­ver­sity, a com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­sity in South China's Guang­dong Province with a his­tory of more than 100 years, es­tab­lished a School of Agri­cul­ture, mak­ing it one of the few uni­ver­si­ties in China to of­fer vir­tu­ally all ma­jor aca­demic cat­e­gories.

Since early 2018, at least six rep­utable uni­ver­si­ties na­tion­wide, in­clud­ing Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity and Nan­jing Uni­ver­sity in Jiangsu Province, opened agri­cul­tural col­leges at a time when busi­ness, law and com­puter sciences were the most sought-af­ter aca­demic pro­grams.

As early as 2013, Deng Xing­wang de­liv­ered a pro­posal to Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity about the es­tab­lish­ment of a mod­ern agri­cul­tural school. Deng is a Fel­low of the US Na­tional Academy of Sciences and a for­mer Daniel C. Ea­ton Pro­fes­sor at Yale Uni­ver­sity, spe­cial­iz­ing in plant bi­ol­ogy. In July 2014, he be­gan to work for Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity as a full pro­fes­sor.

Hav­ing grown up in ru­ral Hu­nan Province, Deng has per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced ru­ral and ur­ban life, both in China and the US. He is fully aware of the sub­stan­tial gap be­tween China's and the world's ad­vanced agronomies. His de­sire is that China's drive to moder­nity in agri­cul­ture will gain mo­men­tum, en­abling “farm­ers to live like col­lege pro­fes­sors with dig­nity.”

Deng launched sev­eral start-ups in China years ago in a bid to solve ru­ral prob­lems from the per­spec­tive of in­dus­try. Nev­er­the­less, he even­tu­ally came to re­al­ize that the es­tab­lish­ment of agri­cul­tural schools at top uni­ver­si­ties would prove to be the best so­lu­tion.

Yang We­icai, deputy di­rec­tor of the Col­lege of Ad­vanced Agri­cul­tural Sciences un­der the Uni­ver­sity of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences (UCAS), told Newschina the school was es­tab­lished in early 2018 un­der the ad­vice of Ding Zhongli, the uni­ver­sity's for­mer pres­i­dent.

In com­par­i­son with other uni­ver­si­ties, UCAS has a unique strength in its 104 in­sti­tutes na­tion­wide, of­fer­ing sup­port in re­search and teach­ing re­sources, in­clud­ing more than 20 in­sti­tutes fo­cus­ing on ar­eas re­lated to agri­cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to Yang, its agri­cul­tural col­lege spe­cial­izes in agri­cul­tural sciences with a pri­or­ity in cut­ting-edge top­ics, in­clud­ing smart con­trol and ad­vanced ma­te­ri­als.

Sev­eral agri­cul­tural ex­perts and schol­ars Newschina in­ter­viewed re­vealed that the fast ex­pan­sion of agri­cul­tural col­leges across the coun­try re­flects that the gov­ern­ment has started to pay in­creased at­ten­tion to the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern agri­cul­ture.

“China faces se­vere chal­lenges in pre­serv­ing arable land and wa­ter re­sources, as well as food se­cu­rity. It is ur­gent to de­velop mod­ern agri­cul­ture to solve ru­ral prob­lems,” Chen Yul­ing, Party chief of the Col­lege of Agri­cul­tural En­gi­neer­ing un­der the Nan­jing-based Ho­hai Uni­ver­sity, told Newschina. Among the re­cently es­tab­lished agri­cul­tural schools, Ho­hai Uni­ver­sity is the only one to ad­mit stu­dents at both the un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate lev­els, as the oth­ers only ad­mit grad­u­ate stu­dents.

Deng Xing­wang told our re­porter that one of the prob­lems is re­cruit­ing enough qual­i­fied staff, and it can some­times take up to five years to en­able them to start an un­der­grad­u­ate pro­gram. The School of Ad­vanced Agri­cul­tural Sciences at Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity, opened in late 2017, still has only 10 post­grad­u­ate stu­dents un­der the su­per­vi­sion of 11 pro­fes­sors.

Shoot­ing for Top Sta­tus

In ad­di­tion to keep­ing abreast of mod­ern agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment, uni­ver­si­ties es­tab­lished agri­cul­tural col­leges so they can bet­ter pur­sue the ti­tle of dou­ble first-class uni­ver­si­ties. Dou­ble first-class refers to “world-class uni­ver­sity” and “world-class dis­ci­pline” – pro­grams re­leased by China's Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion in Septem­ber 2017 as a new im­pe­tus to de­velop the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor.

Be­ing a dou­ble first-class uni­ver­sity means more fi­nan­cial sup­port from the gov­ern­ment and the abil­ity to at­tract more top stu­dents.

China has only 42 dou­ble first-class uni­ver­si­ties and 95 uni­ver­si­ties with first-class sub­jects. The eval­u­a­tion is con­ducted ev­ery five years and those who were not added to the list in the last round are squar­ing off to fight for the ti­tle ahead of the new round of re­views.

Yang We­icai ar­gued that un­der the cur­rent se­lec­tion cri­te­ria, it is eas­ier for com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­si­ties to be awarded the ti­tle of dou­ble first-class thanks to their over­all strength.

What's more, many re­search ar­eas re­lated to agri­cul­ture come un­der the over­all cat­e­gory of bi­ol­ogy. “If quite a few uni­ver­si­ties com­pete for the ‘dou­ble first-class' sub­jects of bi­ol­ogy, the com­pe­ti­tion will be very fierce,” he told Newschina. That is also one of the main rea­sons why uni­ver­si­ties have opened agri­cul­tural schools or are of­fer­ing agri­cul­ture-re­lated dis­ci­plines.

Ac­cord­ing to the dis­ci­plinary de­vel­op­ment out­lines on agri­cul­tural en­gi­neer­ing at Ho­hai Uni­ver­sity, re­leased in June 2018, the uni­ver­sity's agri­cul­tural en­gi­neer­ing course has a clear aim – get­ting to the top five in China for the study of agron­omy and be­ing awarded dou­ble first-class sta­tus in five to 10 years.

Chen Yul­ing ad­mit­ted that the Col­lege of Agri­cul­tural En­gi­neer­ing un­der Ho­hai Uni­ver­sity was es­tab­lished as a ma­jor move to com­pete for the ti­tle of “dou­ble first-class,” adding that the uni­ver­sity will give pri­or­ity to tal­ent re­cruit­ment, sci­en­tific re­search and the es­tab­lish­ment of a lead­ing sci-tech plat­form in agri­cul­ture-re­lated sub­jects.

Dur­ing the ma­jor gov­ern­ment reshuf­fle in early 2018, the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Ru­ral Af­fairs (MARA) was es­tab­lished af­ter the in­te­gra­tion of the wa­ter re­sources and agri­cul­ture agen­cies. Chen said that pre­vi­ously, uni­ver­si­ties mainly co­op­er­ated in re­search with the Min­istry of Wa­ter Re­sources, but af­ter the gov­ern­ment over­haul, uni­ver­si­ties will com­mu­ni­cate di­rectly with MARA, in this way hop­ing to gain more fi­nan­cial sup­port and re­sources.

Over­com­ing Prejudice

Ac­cord­ing to a 2008 PHD dis­ser­ta­tion by Chen Ran from Xi­a­men Uni­ver­sity on the de­vel­op­ment of China's agri­cul­tural and forestry uni­ver­si­ties, Chi­nese so­ci­ety has a strong prejudice to­ward uni­ver­si­ties spe­cial­iz­ing in agri­cul­ture and forestry, and it has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for them to at­tract tal­ented stu­dents and teach­ing staff. Uni­ver­si­ties in agri­cul­ture-re­lated sub­jects have long been largely over­looked, and they have rel­a­tively poor in­fra­struc­ture and teach­ing re­sources.

In the opin­ion of Yang We­icai, tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture teach­ing in­sti­tu­tions are mainly af­fil­i­ated to the sec­tor, which main­tains a longterm re­la­tion­ship with agri­cul­ture-re­lated gov­ern­ment de­part­ments. Sci­en­tific in­vest­ment and in­put from the gov­ern­ment largely went to re­search in­sti­tutes, such as the Chi­nese Academy of Agri­cul­tural Sciences, and it has be­come a ma­jor chal­lenge for the Col­lege of Ad­vanced Agri­cul­tural Sciences un­der UCAS to ob­tain fund­ing from the agri­cul­tural sys­tem.

Yang said that dur­ing the plan­ning stages for the agri­cul­tural school at UCAS, it was orig­i­nally named the Col­lege of Fu­ture Agri­cul­tural Sciences in a bid to dis­tin­guish it­self from other uni­ver­si­ties. Yang ar­gued that the col­lege fo­cuses on in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary re­search in agri­cul­ture and the school will at­tach great im­por­tance to both fun­da­men­tal and cut­ting-edge ar­eas in the fu­ture.

Deng Xing­wang told our re­porter that un­like many agri­cul­tural uni­ver­si­ties, Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity has a great ad­van­tage in its mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary back­ground of be­ing a key com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­sity.

Ac­cord­ing to Li Qi, a pro­fes­sor with the In­sti­tute of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion un­der Bei­jing Nor­mal Uni­ver­sity. The es­tab­lish­ment of agri­cul­tural col­leges at com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­si­ties is a good sign.

Li says that agri­cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion should play a cru­cial role at uni­ver­si­ties. Some uni­ver­si­ties in the US, he said, de­vel­oped and grew stronger on the ba­sis of agri­cul­ture-re­lated sub­jects, and it would be a great boon for Chi­nese agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment if com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­si­ties in China would at­tach greater im­por­tance to the sec­tor.

But Li also warned that if too many uni­ver­si­ties es­tab­lish agri­cul­tural schools in haste, it would be a great waste of re­sources.

Nowa­days, vir­tu­ally each province has an agri­cul­tural uni­ver­sity and it needs dis­cus­sions and de­tailed plan­ning be­fore com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­si­ties start up agri­cul­tural schools from scratch.

“An or­derly de­vel­op­ment that suits the na­tional or lo­cal so­cial and eco­nomic con­di­tions should be the guide­line to es­tab­lish agri­cul­tural col­leges,” he said. “Blind mass ac­tion should be avoided.”

Stu­dents per­form ex­per­i­ments at China Agri­cul­tural Uni­ver­sity, Bei­jing

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