Representative image. Image: PTI
- Over the years, agricultural universities have evolved to become separate institutes with a focus on agriculture, horticulture and veterinary sciences – mandated to cover the entire state.
- But the National Education Policy recommends a system where multidisciplinary agricultural universities cover all disciplines with a focus on regional problems.
- If implemented in their true spirit, the recommendations have the potential to solve the transdisciplinary problems that farmers face and take research closer to them.
In India, state agricultural universities (SAUs) are mandated to cover teaching, research and extension to promote new agricultural technologies and enhance farmers’ welfare. G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, the first SAU established in 1960 in Uttar Pradesh, oversaw agricultural teaching, research and extension with a mandate to support agricultural and allied activities like animal husbandry and fisheries across the state.
Historically, one agricultural university was started in each state and was mandated to cover agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, fisheries, home science and forestry in a multidisciplinary approach across the state. They had three verticals: teaching, conducting research and supporting farmers through farm extension. The three verticals needed to mutually reinforce each other to enhance the welfare of the farmers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, one SAU was started in each state with similar objectives and was mandated to cover the entire state. Over the years, they were expanded into larger universities with more student intake and research stations. Then in the 2000s, they were split into separate universities based on functionality – separate universities for agriculture, horticulture and veterinary. As universities expand, the separation based on functionality has become popular and most of the states follow this model because it is administratively convenient and the mandate of covering the entire state is intact. Now there are 63 SAUs with a mandate of imparting agricultural education, conducting agricultural research and disseminating information through agricultural extension.
However, the idea of separate universities for agriculture, horticulture and veterinary sciences does not fit the true spirit of the ‘university system’, where holistic development of knowledge to solve the problems that farmers face is the aim. After separation, many of the agricultural universities are working well due to their sheer numbers and size, with many departments and centres of excellence. The same cannot be said of horticulture and veterinary universities, however. Their student intake is limited, they have very few faculty members who are burdened with non-teaching and administrative responsibilities and work in under-equipped labs and old buildings with poor maintenance. The narrow focus on horticulture or veterinary care is unable to solve the transdisciplinary problems that farmers face. For example, horticultural students were not exposed to veterinary problems and vice versa.
Hence, there is a need for transforming these separate universities into holistic universities. The National Educational Policy, 2020 (also referred to as New Education Policy) provides an opportunity to transform state horticultural and veterinary universities into multidisciplinary education and research universities (MERU). This will give an opportunity to transform the functionally separate universities into a region-specific multidisciplinary university, which will be embedded into the local socio-techno-economic settings and address local problems.
Some states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh already have region-specific multidisciplinary agricultural university systems. In these states, each SAU has agriculture, horticulture and veterinary disciplines and they are mandated to cover only a particular region of the state. For example, the Gujarat Agricultural University was established in 1972 with four campuses and constituent colleges. However, in 2004, all four campuses were split into full-fledged universities. Each university offers all disciplines – agriculture, horticulture, veterinary, home science and fisheries – with a mandate to cover a few adjoining districts for its research, education and extension activities in a holistic way. A similar pattern of region-based multidisciplinary agricultural universities exists in Uttar Pradesh also.
The New Education Policy also recommends that all SAUs follow this type of approach – multidisciplinary agricultural universities covering all disciplines with a focus on regional problems. This will help identify and solve regional problems with a holistic perspective. This model will create the space for students to intensively study their own core subject (like agriculture) along with some exposure to other disciplines (like veterinary and fisheries) and it also encourages transdisciplinary research and problem-solving.
These multidisciplinary universities can also solve problems that existing specialised universities – like horticultural universities – face, including low student intake, lack of teaching and administrative staff and lack of funds and laboratories. Further, with multidisciplinary universities, the scope of research and teaching of departments like agricultural economics and agricultural extension will be expanded to solve the transdisciplinary problems of farmers. A holistic perspective will help tackle problems with the food system by including all enterprises of farmers like dairy, poultry, crops and fisheries. The faculty members can also solve transdisciplinary problems by taking help from not only agricultural scientists, but also those from the veterinary and horticulture disciplines.
These regional multidisciplinary agricultural universities will work on problems faced by farmers in their own regions and impart skills needed in local conditions to the students and farmers. They will also be able to start new diploma and degree courses based on local needs. This way, all diploma and graduate holders can be employed in local communities because they understand not just the local situation but also the broader perspective.
These geography-based agricultural universities can act as innovative platforms for developing new technologies and solutions and encouraging start-up ecosystems to solve local problems in agricultural and allied areas. Farmers’ problems are not disciplinary-specific. They need transdisciplinary interventions with a systems perspective. In this way, students who come from regional-based, multidisciplinary universities are well-positioned to tackle farmers’ problems and will have the necessary linkages with local communities and may get start-up funds and other support from local communities or governments.
The linkages and synergy among the three verticals – teaching, research and extension – will be more reinforcing in region-based multidisciplinary universities, as they are trying to achieve the same objective of solving identified agricultural problems in local settings. The research will be closer to the identification and diagnosis of local problems and evolving solutions, while the extension system is more linked to farmers in understanding their information needs and disseminating the appropriate technologies suitable for local conditions. The well-known gaps between research and farmers’ fields (lab and land) will be reduced with these regional-based multidisciplinary universities. Under this system, students will get first-hand exposure and the opportunity to engage with local farmers to understand their problems. They will also be exposed to transdisciplinary research methods to solve agricultural problems through attachment programmes like the Rural Awareness Work Experience Programme (RAWEP).
If the recommendations in the New Education Policy are adopted in the true spirit of MERU, they will open up new opportunities that will make SAUs more farmer-friendly.
A. Amarender Reddy is principal scientist, agricultural economics, at the ICAR-Centre Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad. The views expressed are personal.