Agri schools hampered by money, skills

Sean Christie looks at the reasons for the decline in the number of agri students in our agricultural schools.

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Of the matric students who sat 2011’s agricultural sciences examination, 71,3% achieved a pass rate of 30% or higher, up from 51,7% in 2009. The rise is not cause for celebration though, according to several teachers and principals that Farmer’s Weekly has spoken with. At issue is the fact that the number of students who sat the exam in 2011 was 77 719, down from 90 136 in 2009.

“Student enrolments in the country’s agricultural schools are declining and will continue to decline unless three core challenges are addressed,” said EP Nel of the South African Agricultural Teachers Association (SAATA).

“The primary challenge is a lack of funding, and then there’s the fact that agricultural sciences isn’t a required core subject for agricultural degrees, and often it isn’t recognised as a non-core subject. The third major problem is a critical scarcity of teachers with the requisite scientific skills and practical experience,” he said.

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Richard Zaza, principal of Zakhe Agricultural College in Richmond, Natal, said that the cost of running an agricultural school was an additional problem, as it had made it impossible “for many talented students who have a passion for agriculture to pursue agricultural studies.” Zakhe’s R32 000 annual fee is “well beyond the means of most rural parents”, he said, and added that many of the well-established agricultural secondary schools “charge twice as much.”

Jacques Kotze, principal of Martin Oosthuizen High School in Kakamas in Northern Cape said that the failure of tertiary institutions to recognise agricultural sciences as a subject, among others, “has had implications for enrolment at secondary school level.”

Nel said that SAATA had been “working on the University of the Free State for three years to make agricultural sciences a requirement for their BScAgri degree, but every year it passes the buck.” Free State Agricultural Union manager Henk Vermeulen said that the country’s agricultural schools are vital “to the survival of the industry” and that “certain of their subjects need to be recognised as entry level subjects by universities so that these students are not discriminated against.”

On behalf of the University of the Free State’s agriculture faculty, Johan Kruger said it was true that agricultural sciences was not a requirement, but added that “agricultural sciences and agricultural management are subjects which we accept in addition to the core requirements, maths, and physical sciences or biology.”

According to Kotze, biology and life sciences also focuses on physiology. These subjects cover the human body and agricultural sciences and focus much more on animal anatomy and soil sciences. “The universities complain that agri sciences doesn’t cover microbiology in enough detail, but that can be easily changed."

Dr Steve Worth, who heads the Agricultural Extension and Rural Resources Management Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that there was a perception at university level “that the standard of teachers teaching agricultural sciences is one of the lowest in the country, and that few of these teachers have any practical experience.”

“To my knowledge there isn’t any degree in the country that offers agricultural training together with a teacher training qualification as one package, or what used to be called a three plus one—three years of agricultural instruction and one of teaching. Hence, there aren’t many teachers with practical experience in agriculture,” Kotze said.

Worth said he’d noticed a rise in the number of students opting to study agricultural economics instead of “subjects that require them to get their hands dirty.”

Prof Fanie Terblanche of the University of Pretoria said that the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Committee within the academy of sciences had been made aware of the issues, and had “decided to undertake a consensus study into agricultural education.” Terblanche said the academy’s decision would be announced at SAATA’s conference in Kroonstad early in February.

Vermeulen, who will address the conference, said organised agriculture needed to look at “how it could help with the huge financial deficit the schools face.” Nel said SAATA was considering asking agri-businesses to sponsor some of the 52 schools that teach agricultural sciences, as “their fate is also the fate of agriculture in the country.”