Dear Friends of EUROPEA,
We are inviting you to read this introduction of our colleague, Malcolm Borg. Let us change the world!
Thank you and thank you, Malta!
“Vocational Education and Exchange: Keys for Enhancing Value-Added & Small-Scale Food Production”
It is a great pleasure, honour and privilege to welcome you all to this General Assembly. Let me start off by saying that there is no hidden message in hosting this Assembly in a retirement village- I can see that you are all perfectly young to travel and get involved in a special network such as this.
Notwithstanding I would like us to take a minute to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of our minds and retire to a place of reflection to understand why we’re here and what we would like to achieve in these next two days.
We live in turbulent times and the political and social realities around us are far from calm and tranquil. We are lucky to live in a relatively serene area of the world and we have been blessed in our efforts to succeed and excel in our careers. Our job-related struggles, professional debates and the striving towards our organizations’ objectives are hallmarks of a society that nurtures self-development and capacity building and are building blocks towards making our countries more prosperous and fair.
And it is with this spirit of persistence and fiery resolve that I invite you to contribute to the theme set before you today: the role of vocational education and exchange in value-added and small-scale food production. Never has there been a time when food production has been so persistently in the public eye, so constant in the agenda of policy-makers, so crucial for the sustainability of our planet’s resources and so essential for the future of humankind as today. To this end, researchers are studying anything that has to do with food in great detail and the food supply chain is being evaluated constantly by various stakeholders.
And I don’t need to tell you about the pressures facing the food production sector- we need to feed more people with less resources, make sure that the footprint of the sector is reduced whilst providing safe, diverse and quality food all year round. And anywhere you look, you’re bound to come across projects and ideas to solve these issues- from soilless agriculture to GMOs, from precision agriculture to the breeding of more resistant varieties, technology is playing a very important role.
One must also keep in mind the pressures from the consumers and the trends in recent years- increased spending in organic produce, the valorisation of the territory through DOP, IGT and similar schemes, pressures to produce less waste and the increased popularity of a multi-functional agriculture that sees the sector providing environmental and social benefits other than the crop itself. Add to all this the intrigues of the implications of the Common Agricultural Policy and you have a picture so complex and multi-layered that would be envied by some of the best artists in the world.
Whilst multinationals play a significant role in this sector and will continue striving to develop their capabilities to this effect, one must really shine the light on the central figure in all of this: the farmer. For the farmer is the engine that drives the sector forward- the fuel in the motor, the face behind the food. It is at our own peril to forget the social dimension of this sector to focus solely on the technicalities and the bigger picture of food production. For we must remember that a farmer’s skills and competences must necessarily be multi-disciplinary. The farms or fields he or she works are like blank canvases that must be painted using a sound agronomic understanding, sufficient accountancy and marketing intelligence, a very good base of entrepreneurship and a dap of creativity not to mention the need for a steely persistence and eclectic judgement.
It is in this context that we, as educators, have a very important role to play. And I would like to challenge you all with a quote by Albert Einstein who said ‘Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.’ How are we preparing our students for jobs in the green sector? Are the skills that we are passing on the students sufficient for them to be equipped in an adequate manner for the field and farm? Are our students keeping the essential competences to succeed on the work place once they have forgotten what they learned at school?
I think it is our duty and responsibility as educators to ponder on these themes carefully and to answer honestly in the best interest of our students, our educational system and the sector itself. For albeit we all come from different countries our objective is the same: to prepare the students in the best possible way for the complex sector of food production.
My dad is a farmer- he doesn’t know how to read or write but is very successful in what he does. I often find myself asking the question- what are the most essential agronomic competences that my dad possesses that are essential to distil and convey in agriculture courses? And once I put my finger on what these are, I follow up with another important question: how should students be trained to acquire these skills?
I am very sure that, like me, you receive plenty of feedback from the industry itself. They give us feedback on our graduates, students and training. We also try to somewhat anticipate the industry so that our courses are highly relevant to the industry whilst taking into consideration trends that will ask of current students the mastery of skills that are perhaps not requested by the industry in the present.
So we have two domains in front of us: the food production sector with its thousand and one challenges and the educational sector with its systems, frameworks and objectives. Where do these two domains meet? They meet in the educational process, in the immersion of the student in the industry-College continuum the boundaries of which we continue to try and remove. And let’s stop and ponder on this for a minute. What is the vocational education process like in our Colleges? Is it based on experiential learning? Is this point where the educational and food production domains meet given its due importance in the learning process of our students? Do we try and encapsulate the needs of the industry by making students solve problems being encountered by the industry itself?
It is my belief that this coming together of the two domains is where our student should be. It is my belief that sound green vocational education should make of the student a critical thinker in this complex sector much more than a recipient of information.
It is up to us to be creative in finding innovative strategies to make this happen. And this is exactly where the theme of this conference comes in. With all of us in this room coming from similar organizations and thus having similar objectives we can use the power of sharing to assist and get inspired on how best to put and keep the student in the point of merging of education and the industry as I discussed before. The program for these two days tries to give us all space and opportunities to reflect, share and get inspired to attain this goal. The themes of the workshops, the listening to experiences of past and present students, the talking to local small-scale food producers and the time we have to discuss and share were all planned with the overall objective of exploiting the power of experiences and networking to help us create processes that would benefit both the students and the sector.
I think that meetings like these are great opportunities to explore exchanges and the learning in different countries. It is one major advantage to be affiliated with a network such as this that makes such exchanges much easier and more focused. Each and every one of our countries has something we can learn from and it is up to us to exploit this possibility to the best of our abilities. It has always been a great learning experience for any student and educator to visit some other country to learn technical and non-technical attributes from some educational institution. Let’s try to maximize these experiences and turn them into change catalysts for the Colleges and the sectors in our respective countries. We are only bound by our creativity and imagination.
Margaret Mead, an American anthropologist, once said ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ EUROPEA’s wide network made out of you, my colleagues and friends, who are all committed to improve the green vocational education in your countries is offering you this opportunity once again- the General Assembly in Malta. Let’s all share in this spirit of brotherhood. Let’s all rise to the occasion to feed into the European green sector skilled people, fresh ideas and innovative solutions.
Malcolm Borg, National Coordinator for EUROPEA-Malta
26 April 2017
Hilltop Gardens Retirement Village, Naxxar, Malta