30 November 2021

However, a research study conducted by University of Mpumalanga Deputy Director for Continuing Education, Dr Gerhard Viljoen, which aimed at determining the gap between the agricultural industry and higher education institutions, has found that graduates are unemployable due to lack of experience.

Titled: Evaluation of the competence gap between South African vocational-orientated agricultural education and training (agricultural diploma) and Agricultural industry requirement, the study involved the agricultural industry, higher education institutions that offer agricultural diplomas and diploma graduates. 

It also investigated the perceived gap between the competence of the agricultural diploma graduates, the competencies required by the agricultural industry and the measures required to close such a gap and transform Vocational-Orientated Agricultural Education. 

Dr Viljoen says: “The overall and most prominent shortcoming identified was the lack of practical experience for new graduates. Soft skills or 21st century competencies were ranked, using the mean rating values, in order of preference and also the production and technical competencies.”

Transforming Vocational-Orientated Agricultural Education

The agricultural diploma is by nature a vocational-orientated programme and attention is given to the pedagogy and assessment of Vocational-Orientated Agricultural Education to understand and promote the transformation of the diploma programmes. 

Dr Viljoen says the study found that the transformation of Vocational-Orientated Agricultural Education is of critical importance for the employment of graduates and to promote food security. 

“It highlighted the need for a clear understanding of Vocational-Orientated Agricultural Education by all role players, as well as the necessity to develop and implement vocational-orientated pedagogy in the teaching of the diploma programmes and suggest a model for Vocational-Orientated Agricultural Education,” he says. 

The results of the study showed a need for closer collaboration between higher education institutions that offer agricultural diploma programmes as well as collaboration between the agricultural industry and the higher education institutions in order to determine commodity-based competence. 

Dr Viljoen says: “It also revealed that graduates use the diploma as a stepping stone for other qualifications or have a belief that it will open doors for a better future and the gap can be closed when HEIs realise that diploma programmes need a different pedagogical approach.” 

Gaining experience 

The research clearly indicates that there is a demand for more practical experience and a greater emphasis on the relevant competence, and that the employability of the graduates is affected by their lack of practical experience. 

“That it is by nature different from a degree programme due to its vocational orientation and that time needs to be made in the timetable for practical learning opportunities, learning by doing.”  

“It is therefore essential that opportunities are created to gain that assumed experience during the first two years of training. For example, someone studying music puts in a lot of practice, on their own time, to master the instrument. This should be the same with agricultural students,” explains Dr Viljoen. 

“Graduates need to work on farms, or a simulated farm or hydroponic facility to gain competence and practical background. Graduates need to understand the rhythm and ethos of the farm and this cannot be left for the third-year Working Integrated Learning (WIL) to gain basic competence.

He explains that WIL is aimed at building on already gained skills. Its purpose is to provide further opportunities to strengthen the link between theory and practice. 

Dr Viljoen says the study suggests that the curriculum must link the theory to the required competence. “For example, you can not only study soil cultivation in the classroom, it must be practically demonstrated and practiced by the students. They must feel and smell the soil to understand its importance.”

Starting businesses is the solution

Some of the recommendations include adding practical facilities so that students can gain experience – learn by doing in their field. 

Dr Viljoen notes that the agricultural industry prefers graduates from agricultural colleges because they gain practical experience through learning by doing and are involved in farming practices. 

“The HEIs demonstration farm needs to regain its rightful place as outside class room; fewer student should be enrolled to make practical learning possible, and a close relationship needs to exist between the Agricultural Industry and the HEI – to share ideas, provide support, host students for experiential training and involve lecturers in practical activities in order for them to gain knowledge of what competencies are required.”

However, its not all gloom and doom for agricultural graduates, there are still opportunities that agricultural graduates can grasp, such as developing their entrepreneurial attitude and starting small businesses. 

He further advises graduates to consider closing the gap and starting their own businesses, thus the inclusion of entrepreneurship into the programme will be valuable.

“Graduates need to be able to use their knowledge and skills to become smallholder farmers who can produce very effectively. If they are passionate about agriculture as a career they will be able to become self-employed and become very successful small farmers who will develop organically into larger successful farmers,” Dr Viljoen continues. 

“Graduates can use knowledge and skills gained to create self-employment. They can become very successful
agri-preneurs on a small piece of land and start generating an income.” 

@ Story by Lisa Thabethe. Picture supplied.