TOPAS meeting

Between 2 – 4 July 2018 I attended the Theoretical Orientated Practical Education in Agrarian Studies (TOPAS) meeting at the Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences in Poland.

Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences

This ERASMUS+ funded project is intended to improve the education of agriculture students in Armenia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan in partnership with several universities from within the EU including Writtle University College. One of the important parts of the project is that it has to result in change, so at the meeting although discussion was important it had to transform into definitive actions which would be completed by the universities in the non-EU partner countries.

The focus of the meeting was to develop policies and processes for placements and internships in both undergraduate and postgraduate agriculture-related courses. It got me thinking about the purpose of placements in higher education. Without thinking too deeply I came up with the following:

  • developing practical skills,
  • applying theory to practice,
  • developing employability skills including,
    • assessing data work related data,
    • making decisions,
    • solving problems
    • other aspects of management
  • and finally collecting data for use in academic work including dissertations.
Delegates standing in front of tractor
Learning about the self-driving tractor

It raises some interesting questions, the main one being can a placement meet all these objectives? Probably not, so any planning of placements needs to be very clear on what the objectives of the activity are. Once it has been decided what the placement is trying to achieve it is possible to start to think about the criteria that will determine if a provider is suitable or not. One of the challenges that we discussed at length is that even within agriculture there are many different possibilities for placement providers. It was fairly easy to decide on criteria for evaluating the quality of farm based providers, it was much harder when we started to talk about other providers for placements, such as comparing abattoirs, to seed producers, to agricultural engineers or other agri-businesses. Whilst trying to ensure quality we need to ensure that we are not too prescriptive to restrict the opportunities of students. Some of the other issues we discussed were what work the student has to produce from the placement, such as a diary of professional practice and final report and what should the placement provider provide in way of evidence?

What I got from the TOPAS meeting

I took a number of things away from the meeting myself. It was really useful to discuss what was happening at other EU universities as well as offering assistance to the non-EU partners as it provided an opportunity to critically reflect on what we do back at Writtle and compare that to other institutions. I made links with a number of universities regarding animal welfare and I hope these collaborations will help improve animal welfare in a number of countries.

Cows eating silage in barn
Polish red x Holstein dairy cows

Personally, attending the meeting also made me regret not spending more time learning languages. I studied French, German and Russian at school, dabbled in Welsh at university in Aberystwyth and learnt Spanish in South America but where I have not practiced I am not fluent and those I studied for shorter times (German, Russian and Welsh) I can only remember a few words. I feel frustrated I don’t understand more and embarrassed when everyone else speaks such good English. The outcome is the plan to make use of time in the car and travelling to practice my languages!

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