Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A new agriculture programme in UTAR

I am involved with the development of the new Department of Agriculture in the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) at its campus in Kampar, Perak. Our first year class has started with a pioneer group of 4 students: two boys and two girls. The course is conducted in English. Last week I gave two lectures:

The Origins of Cultivated Plants
Understanding Biodiversity through Taxonomy

This was followed by a 'field' tour to the Forest Research Institute Malaysia where the students learnt how Malaysia's reference collections of plants, insects and woods are preserved and used.

University education has changed a lot since when I was a student. Up to the 1970s all medical students had to pass a basic course in botany because of the long historical connection between medicine and botany. The first botanic gardens and the first herbaria were set up for the training of doctors and the first botanists were all practicing medical doctors. A pass in botany was also required for those proceeding to agriculture and forestry. These links are now broken. The teaching of botany has declined to the extent that agriculture and forestry can hardly find new graduates to replace their retiring botanists who served as ecologists, taxonomists, physiologists and plant-breeders. Instead they have to make do with 'biotechnologists' who are totally clueless in fields and forests.

Agriculture itself has almost died as a university degree programme. This was partly because of the success of agriculture in supplying the world with food, fibre and other necessities. People now get whatever they need from the supermarket, which never runs out of supplies. The people who made this possible are now past retirement age but there are no replacements. In another 20 years the old timers will have gone for good. This is the last chance for the old experts to train a new generation of agriculturists that can keep the world alive through the next century, which will carry at least double the present number of people on the same planet earth.

We have to cram within a three year agriculture course, the essentials of agronomy, botany, zoology, chemistry and physics. Students are assumed to have picked up skills in IT but need to be taught how to search for and evaluate information.

I am looking for young graduates to do a Master's programme in agriculture. They will double as tutors while training, and be paid as tutors. After training they will be expected to join the staff as lecturers. They must have a bachelors degree, in any field, not necessary science. The really vital requirement is high competency in English. Academia is about learning and teaching. It is absurd to have academics who have to struggle to read and write in the language that they have to use in teaching and research. Poor competency in English is the deep hole into which many of our universities have sunk into and they will not be able to dig themselves out of this hole for another two generations. We do not want to create the same kind of hole.