Agricultural counsellors join forces on agricultural education in central Europe

After the success of the Romanian-Dutch cooperation in the field of agricultural education, the Agricultural Counsellors network in the central European region teamed up for a joint study of the agricultural (or ‘green’) educational systems in Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland. The study focused on vocational training and applied sciences, with the aim of discovering mutual challenges and areas for possible cooperation between the Netherlands and these countries.

Agricultural education in The Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria faces many similar challenges. Enrollment into vocational education is dropping in all four countries, for instance. Like in the Netherlands, young people are drawn to the city more and more. This creates challenges for rural areas, from disappearing facilities like grocery shops or educational centers to declining agricultural human capital. Traditional occupations such as ‘farmer’ or ‘gardener’ are not always sufficient any more for modern times. Since more and more people move to the city, it’s a modern challenge to keep cities livable. ‘Greening’ a city, by building rooftop farms and vertical gardens for instance, can help keep temperatures within the city down. But that means that the gardener of tomorrow should be able to climb buildings in order to plant and maintain the greenery. Modern times ask for modern educational programs.

Beeld: ©Pexels

The Netherlands has always been an internationally oriented country. Its knowledge institutions are traditionally oriented towards international exchange. These exchanges help keep Dutch institutions in the world top, by presenting and exchanging new research and methods. Additionally, international cooperation is not only beneficial to the exchange of knowledge, but it also shapes students into more self-aware and open-minded individuals. The inherent necessity of an open mind in international exchange allows people to look further than their school, work or hometown.

In the joint study, the agricultural education system of the three countries is laid out, the important structures and point-of-contact within relevant governmental bodies are identified and promising areas for cooperation are described.

As a part of this joint study, Michelle de Groot (“Rijkstrainee” with the ministry of Agriculture, currently working in Warsaw) has talked with the Polish government, governmental agencies, regional entities, schools and international partners, to shape an overview of the way agricultural education in Poland is organized and functions. She has also spoken to Dutch schools, to see how the wish for cooperation might be met from that side. This has provided illuminating insight into the Polish and the Dutch system, both looking at practice and priorities.

The Polish agricultural education counts 59 ‘green’ vocational schools, educating around 19.500 students (not counting 11 schools specialized in forestry). The Dutch ‘green’ vocational schools currently educate around 22.000 students spread over 10 institutes, in 110 different locations. Looking at the numbers of enrollment into Polish vocational agricultural education of the past years, it has become clear that agromechanics, food & catering and paraveterinary tracks are steadily the most popular fields of study for VET students in Poland. Aside from these fields, also tracks on renewable energy are increasingly more popular. Both countries struggle with declining enrollment numbers for the green sector.

Logo of the Polish organization for green vocational education

It is already possible for Polish and Dutch students to visit each other’s countries as part of the Erasmus mobility program, but structural strategic cooperation between schools happens less usual. For vocational schools, the Europea Network is an important facilitating partner – both in Poland and in the Netherlands. For applied sciences (in Dutch ‘HBO’) institutions, there is not such institution – since not all EU countries have a level between vocational and university education. Here, personal relations and existing connections are more important to foster exchange.

When compared to the Netherlands, however, this practical part of university education is less prevalent in the Polish curriculum. The Dutch applied sciences level focuses on gaining theoretical knowledge and putting this knowledge into practice right away. A well-integrated connection with regional companies and farms allow Dutch students (both vocational and applied sciences) to gain up to 50% of their skills in practice by taking up internships or visiting farms as part of their course. This is less common in the Polish system. However, more than a quarter of Polish farmers have received full agricultural training, compared to around 10% of Dutch farmers. Naturally, the combination of theoretical and practical knowledge is ideal, and exchange could definitely benefit both systems in this regard.

Beeld: Pexels

Big problems such as climate change, food security and resulting social issues do not limit themselves to national borders. These problems require international and interdisciplinary solutions. For instance, ‘traditional’ intensive livestock farming has proven not to be viable in the long run. How does the farmer of the future increase sustainability, while at the same time managing to make a living? Not all questions and challenges have answers yet, but by exchanging teachers, students and knowledge we can add to the process of solving them.
As the motor of the economy, (agricultural) businesses are also an important player in this field. Ideally, the system of education, government and business are well integrated and know how to find each other. As demand for climbing gardeners grows, the educational programs will adapt.

Have you become interested in this project? Or are you currently working/studying in a Dutch/Polish/Hungarian/Bulgarian educational institution: reach out! We would love to hear your ideas and insights.