Farm workers head home in Ncera Village in the Eastern Cape. SA's  agricultural education and training system is
Farm workers head home in Ncera Village in the Eastern Cape. SA's agricultural education and training system is "in dire need of substantial governance reform", according to Assaf. Picture: Daily Dispatch

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 small-scale 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.

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

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 agriculture-related 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 long-standing. But "now is an opportune time for transformation, not more reform for the sake of reform", it reads.

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