Emma McCormack - a final-year Agriculture student - evaluates the Irish education system.
If what you really want to do is farm, then why would you need letters after your name to do so? Gulping a morning coffee before the sun has begun to peek its head over the horizon, pulling on your wellies when most of the world are still asleep and heading out to feed the world each day is probably one of the toughest but most rewarding jobs in the world.
Fresh air fills your lungs as you climb into the cab of the tractor to feed cattle or pull on gloves waiting for the milking parlour to get fired up. Maybe you live for foggy mornings walking out to a paddock to let in the cows that are stood eagerly waiting for your arrival.
Out on the maternity ward waiting for ewes to push out hungry twins, while many people are sat by their fireplaces with their feet up, is where many farmers would prefer to be found.
Whether it is beef, sheep, poultry or pigs that pull you out of your bed each morning, farming is no easy lifestyle. Most of the lessons you learn before you become a knowledgeable or wise farmer are learned out on the farm.
Tough years like 2018 threw many curveballs at Irish farmers and we all learned a lot from them. Will a college degree put us in a position that will be in any way more equipped to deal with things going wrong? That is the question.
You could sit in a classroom all day long, and you will know endless amounts about anything from a bovine’s rumen to the chemical bond between two metals, but once you pull on your wellies and step onto the farm, it’s a whole other ball game. As one man phrased it to me, “a lot of the people telling us farmers what to do, well, they can only farm on paper”.
To be an expert in anything, you must know the theory and the practical elements immensely well, but in farming, nobody is ever really an expert, are they?
My question to you, is will a farmer with four or five or six years of third-level education under their belt, be any further on that someone who finished secondary school and got right to it, whether they began at home, or travelled to farms many miles away to commence a farming career?
Will a piece of paper actually propel anyone towards the success they desire? My answer is yes, but only if the degree or qualification they have achieved, is actually valid. What I mean by that, is that the Irish education system for young agriculturalists and farmers may not be up to scratch. As a student of said type, of course, I have to step back and scrutinise the system to a certain degree.
I am entitled to question whether my four years have been spent wisely, or whether the thousands of euros being contributed by myself and my parents, are really going to good use.
I only have my own experiences to judge by, but as long as I have had an opinion about my education, probably since I was in secondary school as a Leaving Cert student, I have wondered if the system we are going through is good enough. We are merely numbers, being pushed methodically and cyclically through the system, like droves of ewes going through a lice dip.
Information is fed to us, we absorb a little of it, memorise most of it and regurgitate it all onto an exam paper, only to have forgotten it all just weeks after the exams.
Few graduates feel confident and ready to take up a position in their area of study, once finished college. The college or institution is not to blame for this, as they merely follow a system laid out by a higher power. My own college, Waterford IT, do what they can for us, but they must follow the criteria set out for them at the end of the day.
I recently chatted to a friend who has graduated from Ag in a world-renowned insitution and feels they are no further on after completing a Masters too, and went on to advise me to get out working ASAP because college hadn’t set them up to get where they now are, but experience did. It made for food for thought, for me, anyway.
It is good to review how things have gone after each farming year passes. Have we made a profit? Have we achieved our goals? What mistakes did we make? How can we prevent them from reoccurring?
Similarly, I feel the Irish government, the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture, could do with taking a look at how things are going regarding the capability of their workforce.
Any large company could outline to you, the importance of staff training and supervision, especially for those with no working experience, coming straight from college.
Millions of euros are spent to prepare young people for jobs they are supposed to be qualified to carry out. Yet, millions of euros are also spent in order for these young people to achieve the qualifications they have set out to achieve.
The Irish education system is flawed without a doubt. I am unsure of what the exact solutions are, but I can see myself that money is being paid, in vast amounts, to receive qualifications, from Green Certs to Bachelor degrees to Honours degrees, Masters and so on.
It is safe to say that graduates of agriculture and its many broad comrades are educated, but whether it is to a high enough degree, is what I am questioning.
I am not a fan of assigning blame when things go wrong – but sometimes you need to pinpoint who is at fault in order to resolve the issue.
We, students, are certainly not to blame, we are going through the system just like millions of graduates before us, and the droves of potential graduates to come after us. As I said, we are just numbers.
We memorise information and spit it back out, but when it comes to a real-life situation where we find a cow in difficulty at calving, or a lamb that won’t drink milk – we do not resort to our textbooks. We work from practical experience gained on the farm, or from knowledge gained from our parents or we simply make the mistake and learn from it. I really don’t know if college is preparing young farmers to do a good job.
I know that Irish agriculture is a volatile sector and there are some elements of it that you cannot predict or be ready for, whether you are the primary producer of the head of a multinational food processing company.
However, I feel that if the system were better, we could be a more valuable workforce when we graduate and we could have the potential to build the agricultural sector up beyond all limits. With someone studying agriculture, they should leave college with the skills and knowledge required to succeed whether they want to actually farm or work within the industry.
I was lucky to have a practical work placement within my second year of college, but yet again, I do not know if twelve weeks out of a total of ninety-six weeks of education, is enough practical education.
The basis of agriculture all comes back to farming, and if you cannot actually run a farm or know its workings, how can you go beyond that? Everyone must know the basics, yet that is not the case. There are myriad people in power in Ireland, who may have never worked on a farm, yet they are in a position to scrutinise and penalise our every move, and put laws and regulations in place, telling us exactly how to do our job.
Is the Irish education system sufficient?
I understand that there must be rules in place, as in any sector but when they are compiled by people who are never directly affected by them – people who really don’t have a clue about what goes into producing food, is it fair?
I would love to hear what you think. Do you think the Irish education system is sufficient? Are graduates being equipped with the skills they need? If not, what can be done about it?
Is a degree really necessary for someone pursuing an agricultural degree, or is practical experience the key ingredient in becoming a successful farmer? I fear the youth of the agricultural sector may be wasting valuable time and money on a process that doesn’t reward us with equal value to what we are handing over.
What value can be put on an agricultural degree? It is a piece of paper that gets us hired, but does it go beyond that? I wonder do we graduate with just a brief knowledge of the whole sector yet we are experts in nothing.
Maybe there could be more of a practical element involved or otherwise, we need an excellent system in place that is worth every penny of our hard-earned cash, which educates us to the highest level it can and fully prepares us for the sector we are entering. Is it too much to ask to be skilled upon entering the sector? I do not expect anyone to be an expert after college, that only comes after years of working, and even then, no one is really an expert in farming.
We are caught between a rock and a hard place – without the degree, you cannot be hired realistically, yet it can be tough to justify the time and money going into it, when the system of education only really teaches us to memorise information over a short period of time.
Let me know your thoughts on this and whether the piece of paper and all that comes with it, is an ingredient to success, or not.