Agricultural universities and colleges

22.11.12 Agricultural universities and colleges

Agricultural Universities and Colleges have a major role to play in preparing the next generation for the big rural issues affecting the sector. Having academic exposure is seen as equally important as the practical side of farming in that new contacts are made, horizons are broadened, social skills are learned and knowledge is gained experimentally.

The application of pressures under academia such as time management, deadlines, and modules inclusive of mathematics and English are ideal practice for the range of business studies skills needed in the world of farming and associated industries.

Both tutors and students have a mutual responsibility for learning, with dedication to studying and the right support leading to a drive in the individual to put this into practice.

The inclusion of a placement year within degrees was unanimously supported, with outcomes of a renewed career outlook and a deeper understanding of the issues faced in the workplace.

The discussion held on Thursday 22nd November 2012 looked at the topic of “Ag Unis/Colleges – how much do they prepare students for the big issues facing farming?” and generated a total of 551 tweets on the topic from 77 participants. These included farmers, agri-food businesses, rural advisors, land agents, lawyers, journalists, academics and NFU officeholders.

A full summary of the discussion can be found here:

Q1a Best way into farming? What are your experiences of either the academia or life experience routes?

  • Got life experience 1st, practical education at college then topped it off with the “science” at Uni
  • Universities and Ag Colleges are 2 very different beasts so prepare students for life after education in very different ways
  • The academic route was definitely best way into ag, no farm at home
  • I tried to do both, but college was very helpful from a non-farming background. Practical experience is important at college too
  • From a non-farming background, easy to say academia is only way but it’s possible to do without
  • Changing career, so Uni one of best options to learn industry. Otherwise difficult for employment
  • A balance of both is the best to aim for – gives credibility
  • I chose Academia route because I love learning! I could achieve my dream without paperwork
  • Life experiences got me into farming not my academic results. Farming is so practical and you can’t learn that from a book
  • I think more employers are looking for a qualification now than maybe 20 years ago – but also experience with it
  • I think a mix of college and practical experience is essential for any entrant
  • The more education the more doors left open. Had I gone to a college I would have missed opps

Q1b Is there more to Uni/College than studying & gaining qualifications? What other aspects are beneficial?

  • Mixing with others in the same business but from very diverse backgrounds
  • I think meeting people is key to ag college, broadens horizons and opens new doors e.g. ag in other countries or new methods
  • The contacts are invaluable later in life. One of them will have seen most problems you face
  • Networking & future communities of practice
  • Developing the sense of wonder, of ‘what if’, of innovation. All are key elements of learning
  • At what cost – opportunity and direct – and what added benefit?
  • Life/social skills, people you meet, places you go it is all worth more than the money to get there
  • Fantastic social and academic base which I built upon over the years with practical experience
  • Experiential knowledge – both one’s own & peers

Q2a In an increasingly tight fiscal climate how does Ag Edu prepare students for challenging situations?

  • By not receiving any funding for my course – I’m well prepared for my future!
  • Ag Ed has got to be supported by relevant industry partners/stakeholders
  • Agric students are used to working hard and that makes people very employable.
  • The academic environment puts students under plenty of pressure – time mgmt and deadlines
  • It would be beneficial to teach navigation of red tape, seeking funding/grants, get on the ladder!
  • As much work experience as possible to prepare for challenges, also try something new
  • Inclusion of vital business studies skills (P&L, budgets, forecasting, basic accounting) can never be over emphasized
  • CV & cover letter writing is as useful as anything else I learnt
  • At FE level, many colleges can be found guilty of producing quantity not quality

Q2b Should 1st yr mature students get discounted courses given collection of life skills already? Fair?

  • Many universities are running at a loss since the changes to funding – they still have to pay the same amount to run the courses regardless of what students they are.
  • Sounds ideal but hard to establish who does and doesn’t qualify for discount! Very subjective
  • Only if they can take an exam & pass it without using any tutor time at the start year. But if using resources need to pay!
  • Ag courses are expensive to run, hardly like the lessons are all based inside every day
  • Mature students need fast track opportunities; they are normally in a rush; have families to support; may have loan already
  • Mature students can opt out of their placement year. Courses become 3 years not 4
  • How exactly do we gauge these life skills? Not every mature student has them
  • A proportion of my lectures so far have included CVs, English, Comms. Already have those skills.
  • I feel I’ve gained as much experience working than going to to uni

Q3a Who has bigger responsibility for learning: students or their tutors?

  • Students need 2b dedicated to learning. Missing lectures wastes their time and their tutor’s
  • Tutors help direct and encourage learning but the final responsibility has to lie with the student – can’t be done for you!
  • Mutual respect is paramount
  • In HE the student has to take ownership for their learning – they will need to after they graduate.
  • Tutor has to inspire learner to learn. So both. Ultimately the learner has to find their own way.
  • I definitely respected tutors more who had a good understanding of industry. Clearer learning.
  • Mutual respect is all well and good but if neither take responsibility then something will fail
  • More guide from the side these days. Student buying into learning critical
  • The tutor is resp. for providing a great learning environment and support. The student must take resp. for engaging with it
  • Often balance depending level, student self reliance, stage learning. Challenge to tutor experience get it right

Q3b Q from the reverse angle to the discussion – what does agriculture want from students/colleges?

  • From students I want WILLINGNESS to learn first & foremost, then after that a basic knowledge to build on, can teach the rest!
  • From Students- a drive to change the future of Ag. From Colleges- a drive to inspire and give new entrants a chance
  • Probably too much expected from colleges i.e. full farm knowledge and experience from day one!
  • From an employer perspective I feel the key thing is students have the desire and attitude to learn and improve what they know
  • People who enjoy mixing practical and knowledge based skills in the field.

Q4a How much do students want to know about the big issues before they learn the basics?

  • I want to know everything I can right now! But that’s the role of my teachers; to rein me in!
  • I think the basics need to be learnt before tackling the bigger issues
  • Students at any early stage should be taught to think every decision through. investment much be targeted for consistent results
  • Learning basics opens eyes to what you don’t know. Awareness of big issues builds over time
  • You can’t build without foundations, totally agree
  • Big issues need to be known but not necessarily at the forefront when learning the basics
  • Not being from a farming background needed to start with the basics. Learnt wider issues as career progressed.

Q4b What topics do Unis/Colleges see as most imp for practice? i.e. soil health & plant/livestock disease?

  • Not most important for practice, but we’re introducing PR etc into all courses
  • Getting agreement on that is really hard. Qtr stock Qtr arable Qtr Mech Qtr Bus and Ec? Then make it all fit …
  • Our placement is vital for practice
  • 1st year we are crop production, nutrient management, planning regs, & 4 month work placement
  • Harper placement brilliant for practical & relating classroom learning to real world! + making contacts

Q5a How important is a middle year in industry? Is it good prep for big issues facing farming?

  • Having done a placement year when at HAUC I don’t know how other grads get by!
  • Middle year in ag experience is essential, something that I missed out and realised I should have
  • Students come back from placement year much more focused and ready for life after uni
  • Middle year is key, change outlook for future career and deepen understanding of key ag issues.
  • Obvious to see students that didn’t have a year out, Issues spoken about field issues not text
  • Gave a competitive advantage after leaving
  • I don’t think it has to be a “placement year”, as long as they get experience before graduating/during uni.
  • Must remember there are OTHER opps
  • It works at Uni, but it’s hard to get 17 year olds to focus after a year away. 3 months enough

Q5b What more can Unis/Colleges do to offer more hands on experience & industry exposure to graduates?

  • Careers & placement week – lots of employers on site with opps for students
  • Industry experience is a partnership between Uni the student and industry. Joint venture
  • We focus on student successes/news on our website. Media exposure helps to reach industry
  • Industry experience underrated in my view. E.g. knowing how supermarket buyers tick
  • I would have liked Harper to have done more practical things e.g. host foot trimming and AI courses, management techniques etc.

Q6a What benefits are there for 1st gen learning about Ag Edu with fresh eyes as opposed to a farming upbringing?

  • Many employers like a “blank canvas”. They also want some prior experience though
  • First gens can be more willing to learn, have no preconceived ideas and know they can’t go home
  • While some families are great support + knowledge base; some are outdated. Industry needs new blood/new approach as balance
  • Interview for HA I said-I’m unlucky, don’t have a farm. Lecturer said-you’re the lucky one, you can do what u want!
  • Massive benefits. I have more ideas and dreams due to not being raised knowing what’s regarded as unfeasible
  • Family farmers get their assets passed down whereas first generation have to earn them
  • If the industry is to really move fwd it needs to be seen as a top graduate career destination for the best people
  • Whether first gen or farm background have to be open minded and willing to learn new ideas
  • Loads of benefits can come from profs with non ag backgrounds
  • 1st gen farmers tend to be more businesslike. It’s amazing how many family farms we see where too many mouths are being fed.

Q6b What are the key things u learned at Uni/College that you couldn’t learn elsewhere? Who/what specifically made a difference?

  • Apart from fantastic education/experience – friends/contacts for life. Knowing you’re among leaders of the future
  • How to invest appropriately in business decisions.
  • Lecturers made a difference, the ones who were in touch with industry passing on key info, kept up enthusiasm
  • Learned that there is very seldom only one answer or one farming system or one method of husbandry that works- endless opps
  • The industry needs new scientists as well as practitioners. HE courses can channel the right people down this route

Q7a What module topic or skill would you like more coverage of on your ag/rural related course and why?

  • More time should be spent on soil biology, this may now be happening, but not when I attended
  • Global issues and policies as they will inevitably effect us all
  • I wish we had had more of an international focus at times, with some better study trips!
  • A more global focus. Not necessarily what other countries are doing but what the global economy means for UK farmers
  • I found molecular genetics, microbiology plant growth all fascinating

Q7b How has technology been incorporated into your Ag Education? How do today’s courses prepare students for farming with tech?

  • National Centre for Precision Farming now under construction at HAUC. Will benefit all students
  • A good relationship with industry means companies are happy to loan latest equipment for students to use
  • Keeping up good links with industry and folk coming in to talk about the latest developments
  • Walford students will be studying Precision Farming techniques.

Q8a Do ppl feel enough links being forged between Ag Unis/Colleges & employers i.e. global orgs & Gvt depts?

  • We try to regularly bring guest speakers in, from ministers through to CEOs of leading companies
  • Worth noting BBSRC advanced training partnerships providing link to industry
  • Can’t help but think it’s a shame links aren’t developed with FE Agric Colleges as well as HE
  • Real challenge is to turn top farmers into top scientists (social and natural) to lead on meeting global challenge of food security

Q8b Many industries complain students leave university unprepared for working life. What are your experiences with graduates?

  • Personally, I felt prepared because had undertaken my own work experience
  • Great thing about vocational courses is that students gain practical knowledge before moving on to higher levels
  • Knowledgeable and willing, but no idea of time management
  • The trick as employer is to spot potential in a graduate. Work ethic can appear late but some peak at college/uni some don’t

Links to more information

Simon Haley, Reading Agricultural Consultants and Alan Spedding, 27 November 2012

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