Vocational agricultural education reform in Zimbabwe: the arguments (Part1)

Taruvinga Magwiroto

Whilst there have been many discussions about how to improve Zimbabwe’s food security and the performance of its agriculture system in general, agricultural education has gone under the radar. But, as I will argue, agricultural education is a very critical part of the agricultural knowledge system.

For most of my arguments, I will freely use evidence from Coombs and Ahmed (1974)’s excellent book: “Attacking rural poverty: how non formal education can help”.

The Department of Agricultural Education and Farmer Training can be regarded as one component of the larger national agricultural knowledge system, superintended by the Ministry of Agriculture and whose mission,

“…is to provide pertinent information, knowledge, skills and encouragement to farmers to help them take the fullest advantage of their opportunities-for the good of their families and communities and general national development” (Coombs & Ahmed, 1974:116).

The agricultural knowledge system consists of components which perform five critical functions:

Identification of the knowledge needs of farmers (Agritex, LPD, Veterinary Field Services, academic researchers)

Generation of knowledge to meet the identified needs (Department of Research and Specialist Services, academic researchers, international research institutions).

Dissemination and application of knowledge (Agritex, LPD, Veterinary Field and Epidemiological Services)

Staff development (Agricultural Colleges under the Agric Education & Farmer Training department and Universities)-For the system to function effectively, its various specialised manpower needs must be met and there must be steady renewal and growth of staff competence in all its components.

Management of the system Minister and top bureaucrats)-an agricultural knowledge system requires good management, not only of each component but of the system as a whole.

Problems and issues in the agricultural knowledge system

An exhaustive discussion of the problems and issues in the agricultural knowledge system of Zimbabwe is outside the scope of this discussion. This discussion concerns itself with the staff development function, which is the primary responsibility of the Department of Agricultural Education and Farmer Training.

The major problems noted in the literature pertain to the inadequate funding and the low status of rural careers and the issues associated with these factors. Cooms and Ahmed (ibid) argue that agricultural education, in common with general vocational education, is treated as an inferior kind of education, even though its basic mission is often more pertinent to national development than much of what is taught in the more prestigious urban academic schools and universities.

Other authorities note that in general, rural careers are haemorrhaged of talented top performers as they gravitate towards urban-based, more lucrative careers. Coupled with natural attrition, deaths from HIV/AIDS, retirements and emigrations, it is not surprising that in the majority of cases, the rank and file of staff in key positions are novices, mediocre performers or people not originally well-disposed to agricultural work and training.

The Department of Agricultural Education and Farmer Training

The principal purpose of this department is to oversee the agricultural colleges responsible for the initial preparation and in-service training of cadres who are employed in the agricultural knowledge system at various operational levels. Here we are mostly referring to field-level extension workers in agricultural, livestock and veterinary extension. As such the aim of the department is to train a cadre with specific skills in the technical aspects of agriculture, and one who is well-versed in rural life, adult education principles and communication.

Coombs and Ahmed (1974) cite the following shortcomings of agricultural education departments in developing countries. In my experience, all points apply in Zimbabwe’s case:

  • Low quality and excessively academic character of their instruction and lack of field practice
  • Lack of contact with rural life and the everyday needs and problems of farmers
  • The paucity (inadequacy) of lecturer and student research, and the frequent irrelevance of such research as there is
  • Lack of attention to the needs of the extension services
  • Heavy reliance on textbooks based on research and experience in greatly dissimilar foreign countries
  • Lack of refresher courses for personnel already in the agricultural services
  • Lack of real motivation in most of their students for rural careers.

I hope we all agree that vocational agricultural education, in common with the general academic education system in Zimbabwe, is tending to produce more and more academically-oriented graduates lacking the cutting edge practical knowledge that historically made these graduates highly sought-after in the sector. This is a reflection of the “diploma disease” currently vexing educational thinkers in Zimbabwe. Employers in all sectors do tend to have reservations on the competence of graduates from the colleges.

Narman (1991) observed that while it is acceptable that educational institutions may not produce personnel prepared for every aspect of work in the agricultural employment market, it is also true that in-service training cannot be expected to correct the inadequacies in basic training.

A cursory analysis of this problem would unearth a deceptively simple problem: an imbalance between theory and practice; an imbalance between supply side (content) and demand-side (job competencies) in the designing and implementation of the training programmes.  

Towards a guiding philosophy: A case for adopting a competence-based education in vocational agricultural education in Zimbabwe.

According to Mulder (2012), competence-based education evolved in the 1970s in the USA because universities and colleges had noticed a disconnect between what was taught at school and what was needed on the labour market.

Mulder (2012) argues that subject content, job and task analysis are very often the starting point of the development of comprehensive competence-based education. The results of those analyses are taken into account for making decisions regarding education and training content. Content analysis has to be taken into account carefully, as it represents the supply-side of education and training, or to put it differently: the subject matter which is relevant to learn. Education and training institutes have to combine information from job and task analysis with content analysis, which in turn has to be based on the current state of disciplinary knowledge in the field. In other words, there should be a balance in terms of demand and supply thinking in the development of comprehensive competence-based education and training.

What is competence-based education?

Mulder (2012) argues that “competence” is a powerful concept, because it is about the integral capability of persons to perform adequately in a given context. Educational institutions teach trainees certain knowledge and test whether they master that knowledge, without assuring that they can apply that knowledge in the real world of their present or future jobs or professions. In vocational or occupational education, graduates should  be capable to perform according to the expectations of the society and the labour market.

The arguments of this article will be developed further in subsequent instalments. Read more at http://www.livestockmatters.blog

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