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Opening Remarks: Teagasc Conference on Agricultural Education: Conference "Supp

Opening Remarks: Teagasc Conference on Agricultural Education: Conference "Supporting Economic Recovery"

Professor Gerry Boyle, Director Teagasc

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to open today’s conference and to acknowledge, in advance, the contributions of our chairpersons, participants and especially, our distinguished speakers.

Teagasc’s mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and the broader bio-economy. For over 50 years we have driven this mission. We would like to think that we have developed innovation-support methodologies that not only work for the agri-food sector but that also have relevance for other sectors.

One lesson we’ve learned is that successful science-based innovation support requires high-level capabilities in knowledge generation and procurement (research); knowledge transfer; and knowledge absorption (education and training). If we are to create a “best in class” innovation system in Ireland we will need to focus on the development of these three axes as an integrated whole. The traditional perspective saw knowledge generation as sufficient in itself to drive productivity and competitiveness - it was a case of “discovering it and they will use it”. However, without investment in developing capabilities in “knowledge transfer” and “knowledge absorption”, knowledge will simply be grossly underused. Thus, what is ultimately important to Teagasc, as an integrated knowledge management organisation, supporting science-based innovation, is not the stock of knowledge that is created per se but the creation of the capacity to use it effectively.

Our education programme is key to achieving this goal.

Agriculture in the 21st century faces multiple challenges: it has to produce more food and fibre to feed a growing population with a smaller rural labour force; produce more feedstocks for a potentially huge bio-energy market; contribute to overall development in the many agriculture-dependent developing countries; adopt more efficient and sustainable production methods; and adapt to climate change. These are demanding challenges!

Because of these challenges the land-using managers and the workforce must always be prepared to react, to adapt, and to think ahead. Farmers of the future will above all be managers of a complex resource base. They will also have to be entrepreneurs and risk takers. A challenge for today's event is to explore what will be required from our educational providers to ensure that the next generation of leaders in agriculture is prepared to deal with the increasing and ever-changing demands on agricultural systems.

An event, such as today’s, provides me with the opportunity to thank our partners and stakeholders that continually support us in our endeavour to provide the best possible education service to meet the needs of Ireland’s most important indigenous industry.

We simply couldn’t cater for in excess of 2,000 college students and nearly 10,000 adult learners with a staff of about 220 and mount some 32 courses each year without extensive support from so many sources. First off, I want to thank the students and their parents that have supported Teagasc courses so steadfastly over the years. Without an appreciation from Ireland’s farm families that education in agriculture and horticulture, no more than in any other sector of economic activity, is simply the best lifetime investment that anyone can make, we wouldn’t be in business.

A special acknowledgement is also extended to the countless numbers of farmers that have offered their farms as host farms to enable generations of students to develop sound practical skills that complement their academic programmes. Many of these farms have offered more than mentoring in the practice of modern farming but I know, in many cases, have become second families for our students. I know many host families are immensely proud of those that have worked on their farms and follow their progress with keen interest.

We also receive strong institutional support at both further education and higher education levels. In particular, I want to acknowledge the contribution to the overall Teagasc education programme provided by the private colleges – Gurteen, Mountbellew and Pallaskenry and up to recently Warrinstown – whose staff and owners have worked tirelessly with Teagasc over the years to provide a modern programme in agricultural education that we can all be immensely proud. In recent years the budgetary and staffing situation for these institutions has been challenging but despite these pressures they have all been unwavering in their commitment to agricultural education.

For several years now we have been actively involved in a partnership arrangement with several Institutes of Technology (IOT) in the provision of courses in higher education at general and honours degree level. This development has been exceptionally positive for our students, many of whom may not have contemplated going onto higher level when they initially undertook further level courses at Teagasc colleges. The accessibility of higher education options has, through these partnerships, enabled large numbers of students to reach their potential in personal and education terms. In particular, I want to therefore acknowledge our partners in Waterford Institute of Technology, Cork Institute of Technology, Limerick Institute of Technology, Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, Athlone Institute of Technology and Dundalk Institute of Technology. These partnerships are immensely valuable to Teagasc and have greatly enhanced the scope and depth of course offerings to students wishing to pursue a career in the agri-food sector.

In recent years we have extended these partnerships to University College Dublin (UCD) and Dublin City University (DCU).

The B.Agr.Sc. (Honours) in Dairy Business at UCD is an exciting new development and very timely given the target for a 50% expansion in milk production by 2020 as set out in the Food Harvest 2020 report. This degree is unique in both in conception and course content. In Teagasc we work actively with a series of Stakeholder Consultation Groups. These groups are composed of individuals from outside the organization who provide Teagasc with invaluable advice on our research, advisory and education programmes. Some years ago our Dairy Consultation Group identified the need for a degree programme that would combine business as well as the traditional technical modules. Teagasc engaged in consultations with our partners in UCD and two years ago this unique programme was launched. The programme is designed to provide students entering the dairy industry with a high level of scientific, technical and business skills. Years 1, 2 and 4 are being delivered at UCD while in Year 3 students will undertake ‘Technical Management of a Dairy Farm’ at Teagasc Kildalton prior to commencing professional Work Experience Placement, most likely in New Zealand. Another unique feature is that students will be exposed to the latest research developments by taking modules in Grassland Management and Applied Dairy Cow Nutrition, Applied Animal Breeding and Reproduction, Dairy Systems and Herd Health will be undertaken at Teagasc’s Animal Production and Grassland Centre, Moorepark.

Another exciting development is the new B.Sc. in Horticulture (Honours) developed by DCU in conjunction with ourselves. This programme has been designed to incorporate the theoretical and practical aspects of horticulture to provide participants with the knowledge and expertise needed for a career at the highest professional level. The course will be of interest to students who enjoy and appreciate the natural environment and created landscapes such as gardens, sports turf facilities and the production of fruit and vegetables. The programme will combine the best of science at DCU with the best of horticulture at the Teagasc College at the National Botanic Gardens. The two campuses are almost adjacent and provide world-class facilities with gardens of international renown. We will be taking in our first students this autumn. In time we hope that this programme will provide a hub for post-graduate research in horticulture.

Speaking of new degrees, I have great pleasure in announcing a new B.Sc. in Sustainable Agriculture (Honours) at Dundalk Institute of Technology in conjunction with Teagasc, Ballyhaise, Co.Cavan. This course will focus on economically and environmentally sustainable agricultural technologies and systems. The course is aimed at commercial farmers and farm managers as well as professionals servicing the agri-food sector.

All these exciting new developments, as well as our existing offerings, are dependent on the availability of top-class staff and facilities in our colleges and regional offices as well in our partner institutions. We have invested in our colleges in recent years and, while there is still a lot to do, we are gradually bringing our facilities up to a par with those at our partner institutions. Our education staff have exhibited outstanding professionalism and dedication, particularly in recent years in dealing with the dramatic increase in enrolments.

However, this year we had to turn away 230 applicants. Since the beginning of the moratorium on recruitment in the public service we have lost 17 front-line teaching staff across our seven colleges. Some gaps have been filled by redeploying advisory staff but given the losses also of advisory staff through retirement and the huge work demands in that area, redeployment has not been sufficient to stem the gap. The loss in staff has meant that our capacity to take on students has been permanently depleted by about 300. If the education section of Teagasc were treated the same as other state education providers, we would have been able to replace these staff and been in a position to take in all qualified applicants. At a time when it universally recognized that education is key to promoting agricultural growth and efficiency, this situation is, to say the least, anomalous.

The Food Harvest 2020 Report has set out the potential that exists for expansion across Ireland’s agri-food sector. It also clearly identifies the role for a highly educated and trained workforce. To respond adequately to the needs of the sector, our education programmes have to be constantly updated, both in terms of pedagogy and curriculum. Quality and relevance have to be the bywords for our educational services. Quality assurance is determined in several ways. The absolute backstop is the FETAC and HETAC control systems. But we ourselves have to seek to go beyond formal quality requirements, demanding though they may be. We place a high premium on student feedback and every module delivered by Teagasc is subject to anonymous student reviews. We are also implementing a peer quality review and an external teaching quality assessment system. As I mentioned earlier, we benefit hugely from our very effective stakeholder consultation group, known as the Teagasc Education and Training Forum. This group, which is widely representative of educationalists and the agri-sector, provides constant feedback on the quality and relevance of our programmes.

Any educational programme must be forward-looking in terms of pedagogy and curriculum. On pedagogy we have introduced on-line teaching systems and used the “discussion group” structure to provide experiential learning opportunities for our students. Thanks to the input of the Forum we have engaged in on-going development of our curriculum.

There has been ongoing programme innovation in recent years in adapting well known Teagasc knowledge-transfer software such as our Cost Control Planner, eProfit Monitor, etc. We have also introduced a unique module in Leadership in collaboration with Macra na Feirme.

We have moved to increase the number of business modules taken by students in response to requests from stakeholders. From next year there will be a significant increase in such modules for about 70% of our agricultural students. In farm enterprise modules we will be placing additional emphasis on farmers contemplating expansion of existing dairy herds or conversions from other enterprises to dairying, including new entrants, and the challenges they will face in terms of capital requirements, efficiency and profitability. We also intend to update our Environment and Sustainability modules to incorporate issues such as energy efficiency and conservation, Green House Gases, carbon management, and sustainability concepts. We also want to ensure that all the farm enterprise modules will include a learning outcome on the latest research, technology and policy developments to ensure that the content remains current and forward looking.

If Ireland is to achieve the 50% growth target in milk production set out in Food harvest 2020, further adaptation and development in our dairy programmes will be required. Our flagship course is our Advanced Certificate in Dairying (ACD). This programme is blend of the best and most up-to-date approaches to teaching and learning. It is a modern, fit for purpose template that combines a solid but relevant academic emphasis with high quality practical learning. The programme is state of the art in terms of pedagogy and curriculum but there is room for further development.

I am pleased to announce today that, specifically in response to the Food Harvest 2020 Report, we intend to bring forward a number of upgrades to the benchmark ACD qualification. Through the Forum and from consulting with our former students, we believe there is a need for a follow-on programme to support recent graduates. This could take the form of a mentoring programme managed by our advisory service and supported by short courses and workshops linked to discussion groups. We are also examining a specific post-graduation placement or internship either on an Irish or overseas farm that would possibly be recognized by FETAC as a as a supplementary award. Ultimately, if there is sufficient demand, we would be prepared to introduce a degree-level programme that incorporates this type of internship arrangement as a follow-on from the ACD qualification.

In its 2008 Foresight Report, launched in this very location, Teagasc committed itself to putting in place the necessary innovation supports to ensure that our industry will be able to keep pace with the rapidly changing global environment. In that Report, we identified, for the first time, the priority need to build an innovative capacity in this country that could take advantage of growing concerns for global food security, but also of the wider opportunities arising from the emergence of the so-called “Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy.”

Food Harvest 2020 has provided concrete expression for that vision and, in particular, has prioritised the pivotal role of education.

I'm confident that today's conference, with its impressive line up of speakers that I know are not afraid to express their opinions, will provide a clear direction for the path that education must take.

I look forward immensely to the proceedings.

Thank you.