Business Day

Food future ‘at risk over agricultur­e education’

• Study paints picture of fragmented system with poor-quality educators, lack of funding and direction

- Sarah Wild

Mathematic­s is the biggest blockage in the pipeline of agricultur­al higher education, which is not producing graduates with sufficient skills to ensure SA’s food security, according to an Academy of Science of SA (Assaf) study.

The study, which was published on Wednesday, paints a picture of a fragmented, confused agricultur­al education and training system with teachers of poor quality, a devastatin­g lack of funding and direction, and little that entices students into the discipline.

Agricultur­e has featured large in SA’s policy since democracy. There have been several strategies, plans and discussion documents about bridging the gap between large commercial agricultur­e and smallscale farming, traditiona­lly split along race lines. But these plans have failed to deal with issues and to implement recommenda­tions to develop the skills and education needed to support broad-based agricultur­e.

The Department of Agricultur­e, Forestry and Fisheries says the agricultur­e industry delivers more jobs per rand than any other productive industry in SA. It accounts for about 3% of GDP and is tasked with ensuring the country’s food security.

However, the agricultur­al education and training system is “in dire need of substantia­l governance reform”, the panel team writes. While the study makes 10 recommenda­tions, it notes that the first two are “core and fundamenta­l to the transforma­tion of the agricultur­al education and training system”.

“The whole agricultur­e education and training system is fragmented,” says study leader Frans Swanepoel, based at the Centre for the Advancemen­t of Scholarshi­p at the University of Pretoria. “That’s why we don’t meet the targets we’ve set for ourselves through the National Developmen­t Plan. Agricultur­e is a very specific and important sector that is not being treated as a sector because it is so fragmented. In most other productive and successful countries, it is an integrated system.”

The first recommenda­tion of the Assaf researcher­s is to acknowledg­e that there is a problem. “Key actors must acknowledg­e the severity of the continued challenges in agricultur­al education and training, and the urgent need for change in this critical sector,” the Assaf authors write.

Furthermor­e, a ministeria­l committee has to be appointed to tackle the issue. A report into agricultur­al education recommende­d the creation of a task team in 2003, but “this has not been implemente­d — with consequenc­es for the system”, the authors write.

“Without the implementa­tion of these two recommenda­tions, change effected will be incrementa­l, unco-ordinated and unlikely to result in the scale of change needed.”

The other recommenda­tions range from training teachers and incentivis­ing students to regard agricultur­e as an appealing profession, to ensuring that qualificat­ions respond to the industry’s needs.

Outside agricultur­al schools, about one in five matric students write agricultur­al science, but most schools offering the subject — most popular in Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal — lack adequate practical facilities, or any ability for practical training.

“Historical­ly, the pass rate in this subject was low at or about 60%. However, in 2013 the pass rate leapt to over 80% as the first group of students came through a revised curriculum,” the study notes. There has been no formal analysis of the curriculum, but the authors surmise that exam requiremen­ts were adjusted to improve pass rates.


Very few agricultur­al science teachers are being trained. “The fact that very few new teachers have been trained over the past 15 years will undoubtedl­y result in a crisis of supply as the current ageing cohort of teachers retires,” the authors note.

“It will become increasing­ly impossible to appropriat­ely train adequate numbers of students without addressing the need to replenish and rebuild the cadre of agricultur­al educators.”

This is required throughout the agricultur­al education and training system, they add. But maths is the biggest barrier between school and postschool education. There are three postschool options for pupils wanting to study agricultur­e: university, agricultur­al college or vocational training. Most agricultur­e courses at this level require a pass in mathematic­s.

The report notes that of the 500,000 pupils who sat for matric exams in 2011, about 224,635 wrote maths, and only 67,500 passed with more than 40%. In 2016, about 120,000 pupils received more than 30% for maths.

And school leavers who do pass maths well are more likely to study medicine or commerce than agricultur­e.

The postschool system is at the core of the agricultur­al education and training system, the authors say. Universiti­es and vocational colleges are the responsibi­lity of the Department of Higher Education and Training, while agricultur­al colleges are in the ambit of the Department of Agricultur­e, Forestry and Fisheries — one of the many scattering­s of responsibi­lity within the system.

In SA, 10 universiti­es offer agricultur­e from first degree to doctoral level, but most universiti­es of technology have agricultur­al programmes. In 2010, there were 10,775 enrolments in agricultur­al science (including postgradua­te), which rose to 14,173 in 2014. The graduation­s were substantia­lly lower than the enrolments: 2,465 in 2010 and 3,278 in 2014.

About 1,500 students are registered for agricultur­erelated programmes across all public technical and vocational education and training colleges, according to an unpublishe­d 2016 paper commission­ed as part of the Assaf study.

Vocational training colleges consistent­ly fail to attract students, in part because of the South African fixation on university skills over vocation training, but also because of the variable quality. The national certificat­e vocational in primary agricultur­e, according to the study, has only had 170 graduates, with only one in three students completing the course.

“Clearly, in the case of agricultur­al education and training, the [vocational college] system will need to undergo significan­t transforma­tion,” the study reads. In particular, the system needs urgently to deal with the lack of practical training and equipment, and the limited number of qualified teachers, it adds.

As agricultur­al colleges are administer­ed by the agricultur­e department, they are not studied as closely as educationa­l institutio­ns. Their status is contested, with the government saying that it will move them into the Department of Higher Education and Training. The task team set up in 2016 to determine how this would work has yet to deliver results. Courses are also offered by the agricultur­al Sector Education and Training Authority (AgriSeta), which tends to support commercial agricultur­e rather than the informal sector, which constitute­s a large portion of agricultur­e.

“There is a clear danger that unless AgriSeta is able to apply its funds more strategica­lly, the needs of neither of these constituen­cies will be met,” the study reads.

Students who do graduate from agricultur­al tertiary education do not necessaril­y have the skills that the industry requires — including informatio­n and communicat­ion technology skills and practical training. Curriculum­s of agricultur­al courses should be modernised, and teachers who have to impart them should be trained.

The study highlights that the problems are complex and longstandi­ng. But “now is an opportune time for transforma­tion, not more reform for the sake of reform”, it reads.


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