India’s archaic agricultural universities are slated for a major makeover, with state-of-the-art equipment, stringent norms for faculty and a new market-driven curriculum.
Spurred by the boom in demand for agricultural science graduates, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has earmarked Rs2,536 crore for implementing the curriculum in 49 state agricultural universities over a three-year period. ICAR is the country’s apex body for agriculture education and research.
The revamped curriculum attempts to marry the lagging agriculture sector with industry and services by introducing new courses in renewable energy, post-harvest technology, remote sensing, organic farming, agri-business and bio-technology.
Departing from the earlier focus on mere theoretical knowledge, the thrust is on a mandatory year of work-experience with the industry, dubbed “experiential learning”. Officials call it an end-to-end approach in which the industry, teacher and student will share the profits accrued from a project. The government has allocated Rs626 crore for this.
Taking a cue from management institutes, language labs for English phonetics and personality development programmes, including how to dress and face an interview, will form an integral part of the changes. The revised curriculum also includes information on the latest developments in nano-technology, climate change and the latest regulatory framework in the post-WTO era.
With an estimated 20% increase in the number of girl students, the government has also asked universities to build 50 new girls’ hostels to accommodate them.
The changes from part of a comprehensive report on agriculture education by the Fourth Deans’ Committee appointed by the education division of ICAR. The last revision, albeit on a much smaller scale, was conducted in 1996.
Says S.L. Mehta, chairman of the committee and vice-chancellor of the Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology, Udaipur: “This is the first major revision on a national scale. It’s a brand new way of thinking.”
He added that the three previous Deans’ Committees had simply altered a few courses. “It was a piecemeal approach. Now we have set norms and standards for various programmes and outlined an implementation schedule.”
The committee has suggested exchange programmes both within and outside India, and performance-linked incentives for faculty, previously unheard of in government organizations.
Starting in 2005, the committee held discussions with universities and their alumni, trade, industry and farmers. The recommendations were put online in July 2006 for comments and then finalized after a meeting of vice-chancellors of agricultural universities in February this year.
Said S.P. Tiwari, ICAR’s deputy director general, education: “Everyone we consulted agreed that our students lacked practical skills, the latest knowledge and the right attitude.”
Tiwari said job opportunities for graduates were multiplying in sectors such as dairy and food technology, veterinary and animal husbandry, agricultural engineering, retail, aromatic plants, the seed industry as well as banking. “With banks giving a lot of agricultural credit like in the ’60s, they are recruiting a lot of agri-science graduates,” Tiwari said. “Veterinary students are also heavily in demand in large cities.”
Agreed V.P.S. Arora, dean of G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, which also runs a popular MBA course in agri-business. “Annual packages have shot up from Rs1.5-Rs3 lakh in 2000-2001 to Rs4-Rs6 lakh in 2006. We cannot cope with the demand from banks, retail and the pesticide and seed industry.”
Last July, Arora introduced commodity markets as a subject in the curriculum because of demand from commodity exchanges such as the NCDEX (National Commodity and Derivatives Exchange) and the MCX (Multi-Commodity Exchange of India).
During placements in December, students from Pantnagar were hired by companies such as retailer Pantaloon, Tata Chemicals, Chambal Fertilisers and Godrej Agro-Vet. Pant claimed he had to turn away 20 companies due to the dearth of graduates.
The deans of all 49 universities have expressed their eagerness to introduce the new curriculum as soon as possible, although an acute faculty crunch remains a major hurdle. The Maharana Pratap University in Udaipur is the first mover, introducing subjects such as hi-technology horticulture and vegetable processing. For the first time, the government has launched an exercise to award ratings to ICAR universities, based on the quality of education they are imparting.“This will be useful in monitoring their performance and deciding who to give grants to,” said S.M. Ilyas, director of the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, Hyderabad, who is currently developing the metrics for the ratings.
Funds disbursed to agriculture universities are going up. The 2007-2008 budget for agriculture education is expected to be around Rs600 crore, a 50% increase from the previous year.