In Part 1 of this series, we discussed about some of the structural weaknesses in vocational agricultural curriculum design and implementation, and put forward a tentative suggestion for aligning the training with labour expectations and demands.
Now, I will talk more about the envisaged institutional changes being mooted, that will see Agricultural Colleges move from being superintented by the Ministry of Agriculture to be under direct control of Ministry of Higher and Tertiary education. I will give my thoughts on that.
On first sight, the move sounds logical. After all, agricultural education is education, isn’t it? But what will significantly change? Reporting structure? More resources? Professionalization of the department?
These are pertinent questions because in my experience, the senior public service corps (Perm Secs, Directors, Principals, Deputy Directors and other senior civil servants) were appointed on loyalty to ruling party ethos. This has allowed government shefs to behave unprofessionally with shocking impunity. The shefs’ job performance are not even talked about: job performance is irrelevant. The criterion of a shef’s performance is loyalty to ruling interests. Therein lies the problem. The civil service is full of “untouchables”. Will that culture change when the department moves over to the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education or it will be more of the same? I am sceptical.
If the vocational agricultural colleges move, they will be new comers. Will they enjoy the same status as they enjoyed in the Ministry of Agriculture? It is true that even in the Ministry of Agriculture, the department of agricultural education was still small and marginal. What more if it moves to the Ministry of Higher Education? I fear it will be marginalised even more, and probably ridiculed as some second-rate education for failed “O” Level students. In this moment of austerity, that could be the death knell of vocational agricultural education in Zmbabwe.
On the positive side, you expect the move to increase professionalization. Generally the education sector has a more secure professional identity than the agricultural sector. The level of teacher-training is higher, and standards are being maintained, at least comparatively. Vocational Agricultural Education will benefit with better professional preparation of its lecturers; a clearer professional code of conduct; and a more educationally-grounded training programme. That would be certainly positive, since vocational agricultural education at present lacks clear standards for lecturer and student competence. Colleges are given way too much discretion and latitude on training standards, with attendant problems. The “education” part of Agric Education has been very weak.
To conclude my argument I will say this: it boils down to people. One of the basic weakness of Vocational Agric Education has been a failure of leadership renewal at Principal levels. There has been a debate inside the department since my time there: do Principals wield too much power? I know some Principals who feel that they are not accountable to anybody, as if the Colleges are their God-given pass to heaven on earth. Some have been well known to abuse funds, to abuse positions and generally not perform well for the longest time without any action. Some have just been inept, out of their depths. Will the move to a new Ministry, with the old personnel in charge, solve such long-standing problems? Only time will tell, but I think there has to be more radical change. Maybe a general cull of the current crop of Principals may be the best. Start on a clean slate.
Finally, I want to observe that the current malaise and maladies in the Civil Service is not confined to the Department of Agric Education only. Far from it. That is why I am skeptical that a move of Ministry per se will be the tonic. More needs to be done, at higher levels.
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