State and progressiveness of agricultural colleges in South Africa

Mzansi Agri Talk caught up with Chairman of Association of Principals in Agriculture colleges (APAC) Themba Cebani regarding the state and progressiveness of the agricultural colleges in South Africa. Agricultural colleges play a vital role in producing future farmers and scientists who continue to ensure that the country is food secure.

Q: Looking into all the eleven agricultural colleges, how will you explain their growth and contribution into the agriculture sector in-terms of input of numbers of students that are admitted on yearly basis. How many of these students graduate and how many fall off the system and what could be the reason for those who fall off the system?

A: Student population has not grown significantly per college due quality control factors such the number required for effective practicals against the facilities at disposal; rather the number of accredited colleges increased in 2013/14 from seven to eleven colleges. Therefore, the total number of students increased from 1 900 to 2 500.

In terms of their contribution into the agricultural sector, students from Colleges of Agriculture graduate with proven hands-on competencies to farm with very minimal supervision if any. Most leave Colleges to go and manage farms, not only in South Africa but throughout the world. For example, on the 22 March 2020 I received a WhatsApp voicenote from one of Grootfontein graduates telling me that he is at Heathrow International Airport in the United Kingdom on his way to be a farm manager in Mexico. A lot of South African Colleges of Agriculture graduates are in New Zealand and Australia doing very well.

Colleges’ numbers or statistics 2020
College2020 intake*Total number
Cedara College60165
Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute192500
Fort Cox College130295
Glen College90191
Grootfontein College72227
Madzivhandile College60156
Owen Sitole College50150
Potchefstroom College90215
Tsolo College61175
Taung College67179
Tompi Seleka College50164

Q: Is the current curriculum aligned to industry expectations?

A: Yes, the curriculum from Colleges of Agriculture is meant to respond to the needs of the industry. As part of reviewing curriculum, each college identify key stakeholders from the industry who will indicate how the curriculum should be in order to respond to industry needs.

APAC took a lead in ensuring compliance in this aspect. In 2018, a committee of five Principals and one member from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) formerly DAFF, through the Council on Higher Education (CHE) endorsement. The purpose of establishing the committee was to get all Colleges ready for re-accreditation site visits by CHE. CHE recognized the report of that exercise as credible and recommendations must be seriously considered by Colleges concerned even though by law CHE cannot outsource their function.

Part of the criteria assessed by APAC Peer Evaluation Committee was their readiness for accreditation of which industry consultation during curriculum review was part of. All Colleges, to varied degrees of course, were found to be compliant to the criteria even though documentation of the process was a concern in some Colleges. 

Q: There are rumours that some students are chased away from the farms when they go for experiential training because they appear not ready to work in the fields for their hands-on practical training. Most students, it is rumoured, only expect to work in an office-like environment. Could it perhaps be the curriculum that has prepared them for such expectations?  

A: I once worked in one College as a Head of Department (HoD) and students were placed in the Department of Agriculture offices. On my arrival I went to the farmers requesting them to consider placing our students for experiential learning in their farms. That programme yielded positive results such that some ended up being employed as trainee managers mainly in the dairy industry.

APAC’s responsibility is to encourage colleges to comply to the 60:40 (Theory: Practical ratio) to ensure that students can be able to perform any farm practice with ease when leaving the college at the end of the three year programme.  

There is a general problem of attitude to the current crop of students and that cannot be purely attributed to the curriculum.  Some students are not in the sector because of their passion but they were pushed mainly by their parents. So Colleges can do so much in getting them ready.

There are some Colleges that still need some attention when it comes to their practical training though. This is mainly attributed to limited farm resources. Some College farms are not as vibrate in their operations as they ought to be.  This goes hand-in-hand with the hands-on experience of some training staff.

The relationship Grootfontein and some Colleges have with the industry enables them to place all newly recruited staff members with them for a certain to get hands-on exposure through the value-chain. This gives such staff members more confidence to articulate issues and demonstrate better. 

A: What are the key roles played by APAC within the colleges. Does APAC support, implements or inffluence decisions made by colleges?

Each College is independent and has her own sovereignty. They have their Councils or Advisory Board to support the Principal as an accounting officer. The APAC is composed of all College Principals and have quarterly meetings to discuss issues of common interest from curriculum development and review, quality assurance, general student management and their welfare.

APAC is a unified, harmonized, committed, professional vessel of Agricultural Education and training. APAC always encourage principals and staff to exchange experiences with others from other Colleges and the industry for continuous improvement purposes.

APAC also serves as a link between the Colleges community and national or international role players with interest in the Colleges of Agriculture business.

Q: Does APAC have any policy decisions that it has implemented or wishes to implement in these colleges?

A: Government funding of students from Colleges of Agriculture will remain APAC’s priority until it is done.

Q: It has been proposed that the Agricultural colleges should move to higher to education. How has that been supported by APAC?

A: APAC is in full support of the move for Colleges of Agriculture to be registered as institutions of higher learning so that benefits of that can be derived. Should this move be realized, qualifications offered by Colleges will be easily registered with SAQA, students will appear on the National Learner Records Database and the biggest benefit will be students qualifying to get NSFAS as this is not the case under the current arrangement.

Processes are at an advanced stage for Colleges to be declared Higher Education Colleges of Agriculture. The Cabinet has approved the move and what is remaining now is declaration of the process. The target is for the declaration be done on or before the 31 March 2021.

Q: What is the distinct for colleges under department from those in the national government?

A: Out of 11 Colleges, 9 are under the provincial departments as Chief Directorates, others as Directorates while others are sub-directorates, one is a semi-autonomous institution with its own Council and systems and one is under the national department.

In terms of differences between the provincially and nationally administered colleges, there is none as administration systems, employment conditions and other related matters are relatively the same. On infrastructure development fund, the nationally administered college does not directly benefit from such fund as it is distributed through the Division of Revenue Act (DORA) which caters for provinces only.

Q: Students activities happen to show lot of strikes with unsatisfactory on management of colleges. Would you say it’s due to insufficient support to the students’ needs within the colleges or what could be the cause?  

A: Strikes that normally erupt on campuses revolve around insufficient support to the students’ needs such as funding or insufficiency of it. This is caused by the fact that government departments operate in their way, pace and inflexibility. The issue linked to that is the fact that academic year and financial year are not synchronized. You start the academic year towards the end of the financial year and some items cannot be procured until the financial year start in April.

Q: Within the APAC, a student body ASATI was formed to bridge engagements between the Management and the students? In your view, what is the perspective of APAC since the formation of ASATI five years ago and how is the relationship between the two bodies?

A: Formation of ASATI as a students’ voice has stabilizing effect on how students react and deal with issues. They feel that they have a platform to raise issues of concern on behalf of colleges student community. They get to know the plans about Colleges first hand now than relying on the Principals only.

Q: What are the ultimate goals of APAC towards Agricultural graduates?

A: Colleges of Agriculture produce graduates who are ready to farm. It is APAC’s wish that government can create a conducive environment especially for previously disadvantaged individuals for Colleges graduates to implement what they have learnt in Colleges.  We are engaging the industry to consider involving them in a structured mentorship when they graduate from Colleges. The biggest challenge is accommodation. Some farmers are willing to take them as their own children, stay and share what they have with them. The ultimate goal of APAC is to see our graduates being involved in farming in big numbers. That will have the positive effect to our economy and the much needed transformation in the sector.

Q: In conclusion, these colleges are the hub and knowledge for agricultural information and skills training. Are there any plans for those graduating yearly to maintain and develop the skills learnt when entering job seeking environment?

A: That varies from College to College. Grootfontein, for an example, is involved in a partnership with the farming community of Eastern Cape, Free State and Western Cape to take our graduates and mentor them. That is starting to show positive results as some leave those farms with stock to start their enterprises in their respective areas.

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