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Educating the next generation of professionals in the agrifood system

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NEXTFOOD (Educating the next generation of professionals in the agrifood system)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-04-30

Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, human activities—including those within the agri-food and forestry sectors—have been able to provide for the needs and wishes of a large portion of people, especially in the global North. The rapid population
increase through the 20th Century was unprecedented in the history of humankind. The achievements in food production have been made largely by consumption of finite production resources, at the expense of ecosystems and environmental conditions upon which human existence depends, with severe consequences such as galopping climate change, widespread biodiversity loss and scarcity of fresh water. The growing economy is to a vast degree favouring the already well-off global population with increasing inequality on a global scale.

Education is one of the most powerful and proven vehicles for sustainable development, as also stated as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Intertwined environmental, economic, political, and social challenges require transdisciplinarity, systems thinking and facilitation of informed action in an era of uncertainty and rapid change. Yet, our formal education is still largely based on the transmission of neatly packed disciplinary bodies of knowledge, presented as clouded truths. How we learn to see the world strongly influences what we do in the world. Consequently, there is an urgent need to re-think education and shift the overall focus in education from theoretical knowledge alone to the competences that are needed to support sustainable development. To meet such a demand, the Nextfood project has explored relevant educational approaches, and built them into an overall Nextfood approach to education in agrifood and forestry systems. Innovative educations strategies will be developed in a cyclical action research process ensuring that the actual case studies are ever-improving. The outcomes of Nextfood can serve as as a source of inspiration to higher education that are interested in educational transformation. To support this change on a large scale, Nextfood will disseminate supporting materials to teaching practitioners and future learners.

The challenge is to design and implement an effective learning strategy that overcomes the knowing–doing gap by enhancing both the learners’ understanding of complex situations and their individual and collective skills and abilities to take
informed, responsible action. A number of challenges is connected to this ambitious project aim. Not at least, it raises questions about what skills and competencies that should be emphasised in the education of future agricultural and forestry professionals. Moreover, such a transformation of higher education will challenge a number of institutional factors (dominating norms and values guiding how research and education is done today), not at least how we look upon and decide what is "good" quality research and education. It will necessarily provoke a discussion on how to assess research on the basis on societal impact and practical usefulness rather than solely on scientific excellence. Another challenge is related to the poor quality of educational policies in the agrifood and forestry sector, calling for a development of new policies in the education area is necessary.
The first stage in creating an inventory of the skills and competencies needed for a transition to more sustainable agriculture, forestry and associated bio-value chains, has been accomplished by a number of research activities. A survey that will complement the inventory of skills was developed and administered to stakeholders in all partner countries and beyond. This will give us a good insight in what skills are needed by different user groups.

The 12 NextFood cases ran their educational activities and conducted action-research on them. The focus of the analysis are what it it would require to make the intended transformation. Several factors on student, teacher and institutional level have been reported.

The first step for identifying policy instruments that support the transition towards action-, and practice-oriented learning methods was accomplished by providing a diagnostic of existing policies.Then the work focused on identifying strategies for policy improvement of research and education in the field of agrifood and forestry, by identifying options for improved policy instruments in different context scenarios. In the coming year new policy instruments will be developed.

The first two rounds of testing of the NF Impact Framework in the two pilots are now concluded In its existing version, the impact framework is applicable for the identification of indicators and assessing societal impact of applied research projects. Even if the operationalisation of the framework would demand a facilitator or a peer-reviewer, it has a relatively easy-to-use format that allows usage on a wider scale. What remains to be developed is the notion of an “impact index” that offers a comparison of different projects.
A key research activity is the inventory of skills and competencies. It is based on a review of literature reporting on previous mapping initiatives, plus a survey and focus group interviews in several countries.
The skills that will be needed in the future fall into these seven main areas:

a) Navigating in a changing world
b) Collaboration
c) Systems thinking
d) Digital and technical skills
e) Building and maintaining networks
f) Strategic development
g) Negotiation of different aspects on sustainability

The inventory will be further develop by analyzing data of a stakeholder survey

The 12 Nextfood cases are aiming for implementing a number of shifts related to education:
From lecture hall to a diversity of learning arenas
From lecturing to co- and peer-learning
From syllabus to supporting literature
From textbook to a diversity of teaching aids
From written exam to a diversity of assessment methods
From lecturer to learning facilitator
Even though the cross case-analyses are still on-going we begin to identify the supporting and hindering forces for a transformation of education. To highlight lock-ins and levers for change will be important to the work of developing a roadmap for education in Europe.

We have reported on the policy problems and strategies for improvement for addressing the Farm2Fork strategies. Some of the topics that were discussed among stakeholders were:
The skills and competencies needed in the sector, e.g. critical and systems thinking, problem-based and multi-disciplinary approaches, and entrepreneurship.
The need to complement formal education with extracurricular activities that allow students to gain practical skills on the field
The importance of life-long learning that is short, flexible, and digital.
The need to enhance collaboration and dialogue among the main stakeholders and intvolve societal actors in the development of education
Based on these outcomes we will develop new policy instruments.