What does the future hold for agricolleges?

Education is vital to the transformation of South Africa’s agriculture industry, as well as the country’s economic growth. However, many agricultural colleges are in disarray. Magda du Toit reports on this crucial issue.

What does the future hold for agricolleges?
According to various stakeholders, South Africa‘s education system is letting down the country‘s youth, particularly in rural areas.
Photo: FW Archive
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There is an intrinsic link between education and the economy. Government’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 states that improved education leads to higher employment and earnings, while economic growth in turn helps to generate the resources needed to improve education.

According to various stakeholders in South Africa’s agriculture sector, one of the many challenges hindering the country’s economic growth is the poor state of educational programmes at national institutions. They also agree that this is having a negative effect on the country’s unemployment rate.

In its Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2022, Statistics South Africa reported that about 63,9% of the country’s youth (those aged 15 to 24) were unemployed, while the national unemployment rate was 34,5%.

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The existence of a skills shortage in South Africa is real, and it needs to be addressed with urgency, says Dr Pieter Taljaard, CEO of Grain SA. For this reason, skills development should be the intended output of education and training efforts, as this could be a key enabler of economic growth.

In a chapter devoted to agricultural education and training, The Agri Handbook for South Africa states that the skills needed for agricultural production, food security and sustainable rural development include:

  • Literacy and numeracy;
  • Decision-making and problem-solving skills;
  • Technical and vocational skills in agriculture, as well as land and water management;
  • Leadership, planning and management skills;
  • Social, interpersonal and communication skills;
  • Negotiation and facilitation skills;
  • Critical thinking necessary for fostering innovation and change;
  • Food preservation and processing skills;
  • Marketing skills;
  • Business and entrepreneurial skills; and
  • Awareness of social, political and legal institutions.

Inadequate education
Sadly, South Africa’s education system has failed on many levels, particularly in rural areas, and many young people have not acquired these and the other basic skills necessary for a career in agriculture, or any other sector for that matter, says Dr Theo de Jager, chairperson of the Southern African Agri Initiative (SAAI).

Agriculture is high on the NDP’s agenda, specifically in relation to education and training. Among other things, the plan calls for:

  • The expansion of the agricultural college system, with a focus on improving quality;
  • An improvement in skills development and training in the agriculture sector; and
  • A new cohort of agricultural extension advisers who are able to respond effectively to the needs of commercial and smallholder farmers.

Another cause for concern is the alarming condition of many of the state-owned agricultural colleges and training institutes in South Africa. In 2015, a Joint Technical Task Team (JTTT) was established by a Working Group (WG) that comprised the then Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Along with investigating the current situation at agricultural training institutes (ATIs), the JTTT was asked to advise on the following:

  • The implications of incorporating agricultural colleges into higher education;
  • The models to be considered in the context of the institutional framework for the post-school education and training system;
  • The mechanisms to be established to ensure collaboration between the colleges in terms of skills and curriculum requirements; and
  • The requirements for transitioning agricultural colleges to national-competency level and including them under the DHET.

Major problems at agricolleges
In 2019, the WG released a preliminary report based on the due diligence that its JTTT had conducted on the ATIs. Among the many issues identified was the fact that the skills acquired at these institutes were not suited to the communities in which they were located.

In addition, no arable land had been allocated for putting these skills into practice. Furthermore, the due diligence did not find any kind of framework that supported meaningful engagement between emerging farmers and successful commercial producers that would facilitate effective mentorship programmes.

The report also highlighted the issues raised by the staff and students at ATIs, including:

  • The practice by many provincial departments of freezing all vacant posts and doing away with those not regarded as critical. This meant that, in certain cases, farm and workshop manager posts were vacant for long periods, which had a negative effect on farm practicals;
  • The shortage of equipment, which resulted in students receiving little practical training;
    The widely varying state of workshops and farming infrastructure, ranging from very good to deplorable. In some cases, the infrastructure was in such poor condition that it was a wonder “how any constructive training and learning could take place there”, the report stated. Some infrastructure was deemed so bad that it constituted a health and occupational safety hazard; and
  • The use of old and outdated farming equipment for practical sessions. As a result, students were not being prepared for the challenges of modern and sophisticated agricultural practice.

“The sad outcome of this mismanagement of [the] maintenance of farm infrastructure by provincial public works departments is that students receive an inferior quality of education and training,” the report stated.

Christo van der Rheede, executive director of Agri SA and who was part of the JTTT, concurs with these findings. He acknowledges, however, that training at some of the ATIs is still up to scratch.

The JTTT also found that the DAFF was not directly involved enough in the running of the ATIs to ensure that financial aid was administered effectively and efficiently, as the latter were under provincial governance.

A case in point
The Potchefstroom College of Agriculture (Potchefstroom College) has attracted a great deal of negative attention from the media in recent years. Photographs of the institution published earlier this year showed emaciated animals, kraals in an appalling condition, and grazing lands littered with rubbish.

For more than a decade, students have been complaining that the maintenance of the buildings and grounds has fallen so far behind that it has made their environment unsafe.

In a recent statement, SAAI said that the conditions at the Potchefstroom College were a serious cause for concern. In fact, according to De Jager, the situation was so dire that SAAI had decided to seek legal advice regarding possible actions to save the college from total collapse.

The North West Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the institution, met with stakeholders in 2011 to respond to allegations of the mismanagement of resources at Potchefstroom College and deliberate on issues reported to be of great concern to the students there. Since then, however, it seems that little has been done to improve the situation.

National competency placement
In its report, the JTTT advised that the DHET represented a better national-competency placement option than the DAFF.

“All the evidence gathered […] suggests that, in the majority of the cases, remaining as provincial competencies would undermine the ability of the ATIs to deliver good-quality education and training for their different stakeholders. Based on this, there is no doubt as to the soundness of the decision to shift the function from provincial to national competence,” the report stated.

Consequently, the WG recommended that a holistic approach be taken to the institutional and governance location of the ATIs, and that they “must be incorporated into a single coordinated post-secondary education and training system”.

The WG, however, was not in favour of incorporating any of the ATIs into neighbouring universities, as the “[ATI] sector is far too small to be further diluted, and it has a specific mission that differs from that of universities”.

A Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types was released earlier this year by Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande and is open for public comment.

One of the changes proposed by the report was that ATIs be reclassified in terms of the Higher Education Act and then moved from the DAFF to the DHET. At the time of the report’s publication, policy discussions were still in the early stages.

One advantage of this proposed policy is that, should it be approved, ATI students would be able to benefit from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, to which they don’t have access at present.

The origin of the problem
“The state of affairs at many of South Africa’s agricultural colleges is dire and unfortunate,” laments De Jager. “We must, however, take a closer look at the situation. The problem started at schools and is now very visible at some of the colleges. And, unfortunately, it’s also expanding to universities.

“Agricultural schools feed into the colleges, and we’re also seeing a lack of focus and investment in these schools. It starts with the teachers; there aren’t many dedicated agricultural teachers who received specific training in agricultural-based education.

“Instead, most achieved university degrees in specific scientific fields and then got their diplomas in education.”

Moreover, there are no opportunities for anyone to study agricultural engineering in South Africa.

“How can you compete internationally if this is the state of affairs?”

No growth without knowledge
Omri van Zyl, CEO of Agri Enterprises, a subsidiary of Agri SA, points out that growth in the agricultural economy cannot happen without a knowledge base.

“Unfortunately, it seems that we’ve already lost most of our knowledge-enabling systems. If you benchmark South Africa against other countries across the globe, we’re lagging behind,” he says.

Although Grain SA is not involved in training and education, the situation at the country’s ATIs was tabled at the organisation’s 2022 congress, where deep concern was expressed.
In an attempt to address some of its members’ needs, Grain SA is currently working with mechanisation input suppliers, among others, to host practical technical courses for farmers and farmworkers at Nampo events.

“The need for technical training is enormous,” says Taljaard. “With these courses, we hope to assist farmers and farmworkers in [gaining] advanced skills to operate the sophisticated new farm equipment and machinery that is currently available on the market.

“Unfortunately, the training at the majority of the agricultural colleges hasn’t kept up to date with the latest technologies.”

Not educational institutions alone
Taljaard adds that, unfortunately, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) is experiencing similar issues.

“When [equipment] breakages occur [at the ARC], the processes [for replacing or fixing the equipment] are just too cumbersome and the time frame too long, often resulting in the loss of an entire season’s trial data.

“This is not conducive to [making] progress in plant breeding programmes.”

According to De Jager, SAAI recently met with the Skole Ondersteuningsentrum in Gauteng to determine how the agriculture sector could support these schools and identify opportunities for their improvement.

Improving existing infrastructure
De Jager adds that the infrastructure for training institutions does exist, but it needs to be refined.

“In deliberations at our congress, we looked at the infrastructure available at present. It’s there, but we need to determine how it can be used and improved upon.

“The colleges are located in the correct areas and focus on the sectors in those areas, but we need properly trained personnel and the political will to change things.”

Another option on the table that could help to turn the situation at ATIs around is for the agriculture sector to take collective responsibility and manage the administration of these institutes themselves. However, this will require a major capital injection and a high level of expertise.

According to De Jager, SAAI and Solidarity are already involved with three institutions: Bo-Karoo Opleiding in the Northern Cape and Sol-Tech and Akademia in Gauteng. However, the country needs educational institutions that cater for all 11 official languages, he says.

“This is just one part of the solution. All of the parties involved must join hands and work together towards a common goal, which is the training of new farmers and farm personnel.”

Going private
Van Zyl says that while privatisation is another option, the cost-to-student must be subsidised in some way. “I think that if government is willing to sell these colleges, they could be privatised. This system could work with some kind of subsidy to keep the courses affordable,” he explains.

Bennie van Zyl, general manager of TLU SA, says that in most cases, state-owned agricultural colleges are not an option for anyone who might be considering further education and training at present.

“The situation is such that most people would rather consider any of the private institutions. I’m deeply concerned about the current state of affairs,” he says, adding that he cannot see the situation changing in the near future.

“The only option is further investment in private institutions.”

One such example of a private training institution is Agricolleges International, which is based in Tzaneen, Limpopo. This cloud-based e-learning agriculture college was founded in 2015 by Howard Blight, who is also the current CEO.

According to the Agricolleges International website, Blight has farmed in Tzaneen for almost 50 years and runs his own nursery, where he grows subtropical crops. He has also been involved in developing educational institutions for close on 40 years.

The institution’s vision is to become a beacon of excellence and hope for students who want to train in any of the disciplines related to the agriculture sector.

Agricolleges International provides training to students from around the world and offers a wide variety of courses, such as Fundamentals of Agribusiness, a National Certificate in General Agriculture, and Introduction to Plant Production.

In 2020, the college was named as one of the 30 Most Inspiring Digital Innovations of the year by Partos, a Dutch association of NGOs. In 2021, it was named the Best Global Agricultural e-Learning Platform and Best Agricultural Education Start-up at that year’s 2021 African Business Excellence Awards.

In 2022, the Tzaneen Chamber of Commerce awarded Agricolleges International a Prestige Award for its outstanding service to the community.

Commenting on the most recent award, Blight says: “We at Agricolleges International appreciate this award from the Tzaneen Chamber of Commerce. Online learning has stepped up to the challenges of a modern world, and so has agriculture.”

Laurika du Bois, head of marketing and student recruitment at Agricolleges International, says: “Agriculture today is fast-paced, global, diverse, reliant on high-end scientific discovery, and increasingly responsive to consumers’ concerns about provenance [of food], ethics, and health. Despite all of this, agriculture still fails to grip the imagination of many of our brightest students.”

She emphasises that the agriculture sector could become an even more significant contributor to South Africa’s economy in the next decade by feeding directly into education investment, food imports and exports, and the development of agricultural technology to improve farming practices.

“South Africa is well positioned to provide agricultural mentorship and training to
upcoming farmers, but this requires proper management and needs to have the right systems in place to ensure that resources are well distributed,” she says.

Du Bois adds that farming skills can be developed via internships and apprentice programmes, on-farm employment, peer-to-peer networks, and self-directed study.

Desperate need for change
The professionalism and commitment to excellence of organisations such as this is in contrast to the current dire situation at most of South Africa’s agricultural colleges, where it is obvious that immediate action is required to improve matters.

With calls being made to encourage as many youngsters as possible to choose agriculture as a career, it would seem more important than ever to ensure that all the state’s agricultural educational institutions offer affordable, high-quality education.

Sources: Macaskill, C (ed). 2022. The Agri Handbook for South Africa. Johannesburg: SimplyPhi Information Artisans.
Email Dr Pieter Taljaard at [email protected], Dr Theo de Jager at [email protected],
Christo van der Rheede at [email protected], Omri van Zyl at [email protected], Bennie van Zyl at [email protected], or Laurika du Bois at [email protected].