GFAR blog

Agriculture can be a role model for transformation of higher education

This think piece by Sayed Azam-Ali, OBE, is written as a reflection on the fifth installment in the GFAR Talks webinar series on the topic: `Can higher education better meet the needs of rural agricultural communities?. GFAR Talks is a showcase for debate on challenging and provocative topics related to agrifood system transformation, climate change and innovations in agriculture.

The higher education system has evolved from a few elite, independent and autonomous centres of learning and scholarship into an international network of thousands of teaching and research institutions. This globalised system has brought with it increasingly uniform methods of teaching, research, evaluation and funding. Most universities now follow a common `modular’ system of teaching and assessment, their academics must compete for research funding, often from the private sector rather than the public purse, and their resources increasingly depend on rankings of their teaching and research performance. Is this `one-size-fits-all’ model of higher education fit for the needs of humanity in a volatile and unpredictable world? More specifically, does it meet the current and future needs of agriculture and those who study it?

By its very nature, modularisation reduces the academic cycle into discrete components or modules each composed of credits. Modules are independent units of assessment, and a student’s final classification depends on their performance across a set of modules. Despite advantages (transparency, interdisciplinarity, student choice and mobility) there are concerns about a modular system in which learning is fragmented into bite size chunks, degrees commodified into products and students treated as customers. For many, modularisation is the academic equivalent of the supermarket, in which products (degrees) are exchanged for cash (fees) and students are vessels into which the subject matter of a module is poured. For agriculture, the modular degree contrasts with the notion of an integrative subject in which knowledge is developed sequentially from fundamental principles to practical actions. Departure from this model sets three major challenges for teachers and students of agriculture. The first is how to integrate learning across modules of a degree in a complex subject such as agriculture that includes crop and animal sciences, as well as management of natural resources and biological, physical, chemical, economic and social systems that interact within and between each other. The second is how to develop student capability in a subject that must marry theoretical elements and professional practices. The third is how can students understand and articulate the social, ethical and political consequences of their studies beyond the content of specific modules so that they can become agents of change rather than receptacles of current knowledge.

For their research, university staff are assessed on outputs measured over several years. This periodic assessment poses several challenges for agricultural researchers.  Not only must their research secure public funding, it must also attract support from the private sector. Even with public funds, there is an increasing emphasis on wealth creation (for whom?) rather than societal impact. In the case of private funding, industry may impose restrictions on the publication of research results, with obvious limitations on its social value and impact. Rather than contributing to social benefit, privately funded research outputs are often retained by companies for commercial advantage. In this way, agricultural research is increasingly driven by profit rather than enquiry, short-term results rather than long-term benefits, commercial advantage rather than social impact. It is also increasingly reactive to the needs of industry and government rather than proactive to the needs of society or the environment. Whilst there may be increasing pressures for research methods that are ethical, for example in terms of animal welfare, there are fewer demands for research that has ethical outcomes, for example as a public good or human right. As industry gains ever more control over research funding, it increasingly determines what is done, how, by whom, for whom, on which terms and at what cost. Industry demands a return on investment which maximises commercial advantage through confidentiality agreements, control of innovation and patenting of new technologies. Whilst commercial funding might provide short-term support, agriculture needs strategic planning which recognizes that investments may take years for impacts, outcomes that go beyond profit and solutions that address complex challenges outside the immediate interests of the sponsor.

The higher education system has evolved into an international network of teaching and research institutions, but does the one-size-fits-all model meet the current and future needs of agriculture and those who study it?

For the assessment of their research, individual academics submit a record of their publications and the `impact factor’ of the journals where their work appears. The impact factor of a journal is based on the frequency in which papers are referred by other authors, favouring academics who frequently publish in high-impact journals, in areas of current academic fashion and with potential for commercialization. Research that is equally important but of less commercial interest will get lower scores and therefore be seen as of lower quality. Research done in laboratories does not directly depend on weather, time of day or day of the week. This means that measurements, analysis, and preparation of papers can be distributed throughout the calendar year. In contrast, field research depends on location, season, time of day and the growing cycle of a crop or animal. Because seasons vary, quality journals require replication of measurements in time as well as space. Consequently, the same field experiment must be done over several seasons and this long experimental period affects the time from preparation of a proposal to publication of results with consequent impacts on numbers of published papers. Agricultural sciences are caught between two ends of the research spectrum. Fundamental or basic research seeks technical breakthroughs in which application of research results is not a priority whilst applied research must also provide practical solutions to agricultural challenges. When industry is the paymaster, the funder will insist on milestones, deliverables, targets and outputs that justify an investment, which usually means short-term benefit to private companies. In fact, agricultural research requires more than commercial outputs but must also lead to outcomes with impacts on the wider economy, livelihoods, social justice and the environment.

Finally, agriculture, those who study it and the campuses responsible for its teaching and research have all changed during the era of globalisation and will have to adapt more radically during an era of political and climate crises. The demographic changes in human populations mean that most of us now live in urban not rural settings. Many agricultural departments have either migrated to urban centres or closed in response to a decline in demand for traditional students. Students of agriculture are no longer mainly the sons and daughters of farmers wishing to return to the family farm armed with new agricultural techniques but increasingly come from non-farming, urban and diverse backgrounds in terms of age, experience, gender and ethnicity. The teaching of agricultural sciences must respond to the aspirations of this exciting new generation of future agriculturalists. Agriculture itself is adapting to meet the emerging needs of society with new enterprises that include alternative ingredients and products, novel supply chains and disruptive technologies. Farming systems now include urban agriculture, vertical farms, even vats and incubators that contain bacteria and insects as well as crops and animals in fields and enclosures. Are universities, their facilities, staff and curricula at the cutting edge of this transformation? Are academics the font of all knowledge and wisdom in different kinds of agriculture? How do students and faculty become involved with the farming community and agricultural industry in teaching and research activities so that they can gain the skills and competencies necessary to become the ethical agents of change? Returning to the question of whether higher education in agricultural sciences is fit for purpose, many of us are increasingly convinced that it is not. The issue is not whether it can be improved by incremental changes but how it must be transformed for the good of humanity and the planet. The challenges facing the global food system are so great that the higher education system that underpins it must be transformed so that academics and their institutions become knowledge brokers, co-innovators and partners with current and future farmers. Agricultural courses require an understanding of ethics, issues of equity and access to resources as well as technical content. Research sponsors need to appreciate agriculture as an ally and not an enemy of nature, its practitioners’ custodians, not owners, of genetic resources, and food as a human right and public good not a commodity exclusively for profit. As well as subject matter expertise, students of agriculture need higher order skills in problem solving, leadership, self learning and integration of entrepreneurial and business skills that focus on the economic, environmental and social impact of agricultural innovation. Agricultural research must go beyond finding, disseminating and transferring technological innovations through publications and measure their consequences on climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and pandemics now and in the future. Universities must recast their role as gateways to education, sources of knowledge and information, agents of conflict resolution and catalysts of scholarship and enquiry. In this transition, agricultural education, often seen as lacking academic rigour and enquiry, can become the vanguard and role model for the transformation of the higher education system itself.

Watch the recording of the fifth GFAR Talks webinar, featuring Dr. Jim French, Secretary-General The Global Confederation of Higher Education Associations for Agricultural and Life Sciences (GCHERA) and Vincent Mariadho, National Coordinator Kenya Promoting Local innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and NRM (Prolinnova):

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