The Comprehensive Farmer: What can (s)he teach our students?

GUNi conference

Dr. Iman El-Kaffass of GFAR Secretariat delivered a keynote speech to encourage participants at a conference of the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNi) to step back and see agriculture—as well as the farmer and student of agriculture—holistically.

The GUNi International Conference “Generating Synergies between Science, Technology and Humanities,” held in Barcelona, Spain on November 19-21 an international meeting to debate on the role of the humanities, and the interrelation between humanities, science and technology in the 21st Century. The Conference was organized with the premise that the humanities is crucial for our capacity to elaborate the sense and the value of the human experience in times of change.

With a special focus on Higher Education, Dr El-Kaffass was invited to the Conference to bring the perspectives of networks of Higher Education institutions with regard to how they can help us keep pace with the deep changes and transformations taking place in our societies. Agricultural studies and careers have great potential to address all three types of challenges identified by GUNi—environmental, technological and cultural.

Dr. El-Kaffass represented GFAR and the Association of Arab Universities (AArU), a network of 400 universities and sub-regional associations of education. AArU aims to support, facilitate and coordinate the mission of Arab Universities in preparing students to use their education in the service of their communities; to build on the strengths of the regions towards better societies; and to integrate globally to meet identified global challenges.

In her speech, Dr. El-Kaffass began by drawing a comparison between the athlete of ancient Greece and the modern-day farmer. Much like a competitor in the Olympic Games who was expected to display not only athletic prowess but also a range of other skills and knowledge of many disciplines, so too must a farmer today specialize in just about everything in order to adapt to challenges. “The farmer needs to talk to ten specialists: crop specialist, water, disease, [and] marketing [specialist], social scientist, and make sense of their advice.” Today’s farmer is capable of “seeing a comprehensive picture and making a holistic solution of the pieces.”

“The farmer is interdisciplinary, but our scientists and students are not,” she added.

This last point is key, and is the rationale for GFAR’s initiative—of which AArU is an essential part—to transform organizational and individual capacities in research and innovation. The focus of this initiative is to equip higher education institutions to in turn equip students to positively contribute to the challenging future that awaits them. In order to achieve this, the Partners in GFAR involved have agreed on the following elements of the Collective Action:

  • Interdisciplinary approaches and programs are given priority, along with experiential learning
  • Universities are redefined as living, learning environments – institutions “without walls” that foster learning rather than teaching
  • Instructors are trained in interdisciplinary approaches to change their roles to facilitators of learning
  • The learning experience is multi-faceted and addresses the intellectual development of the student, as well as the physical, emotional (community linked), spiritual (nature, art and environment linked) and professional development of the student
  • The classroom and lecture halls are not only interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary as they open up to “hands-on multi-stakeholder learning experience”. They work with their academic advisers but also engage in community work, experiential learning and internships aimed at developing their skills to find integrated solutions
  • Along with the reformed curricula and inter-linked courses and disciplines, university governance is transformed and schools review their missions and planning.

Watch an excerpt of an interview with Dr. El-Kaffass about the “comprehensive farmer” who must take a holistic approach to problems needing multidisciplinary solutions:


Dr El-Kaffass went on to apprise the participants about the progress of the Collective Action. A number of universities are already volunteering to pioneer this holistic approach to transformational learning and student leadership. A shared model of the required transformation has been developed by participating universities in regional meetings. In Nairobi in September 2017, the initiative was formally announced with partners in Africa (RUFORUM and others) and another meeting in Cairo in March 2018 saw the expansion of the Collective Action to the NENA region (AARINENA and Zewail Academy of Sciences).

Finally, Dr. El-Kaffass took an inventory of barriers, obstacles or challenges that can be perceived in undertaking such an initiative. She pointed to the often discipline-oriented organizational structure of higher education institutions, and the politics that can dominate there. This can often create barriers to the success of interdisciplinary programs and their research outputs—and effect heavily on their budget allocations.

Despite these challenges, the Partners in GFAR committed to the Collective Action on transformational learning and student leadership are in no doubt that interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches are crucial to addressing the challenges we all face. Dr. El-Kaffass, GFAR Secretariat colleagues, and partners look forward to rolling out the initiative in more and more institutions of higher learning across the globe.

DsX6cTwX4AEKScbFind out more about GFAR’s focus on Transformational Learning and Student Development on the GFAR website HERE and on the GFAR Blog HERE and HERE. To get involved, please contact kaffass@aucegypt.edu 

Visit the GUNi website for more information about the Conference HERE. A compilation of tweets from the Conference can be found HERE.  

Blog post by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat.


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