SLU news

What is the current state of higher education in soil science in Europe?

Published: 11 February 2021
A woman in a purple jacket is leaning over the ground with a book in her hand. Photo.

To strengthen research capacity and get new knowledge on climate adaption and mitigation for agricultural soils, the current state of soil science in higher education in Europe is being investigated. A report has now been delivered with preliminary results from education institutions in Europe. The projects is done in the European Joint Partnership “Towards climate smart sustainable management of agricultural soils” (EJP SOIL) during five years.

The survey covered areas such as teaching and research capacity, academic topics and degrees offered, student enrolment, courses and learning approaches, internationalisation and diversity, and job market for graduates.

– A total of 86 complete answers from 25 European countries has been received so far, says Ana Villa Solis, one of the researchers behind the project.

Only one tenth of higher education institutes has a soil science department

Preliminary results showed that only 10% of the higher education institutions (HEIs) had a dedicated soil science department. Traditionally it has been more common with departments, or the like, where soil science was the only topic.

– From the answers of the survey it was seen that nowadays the majority of soil science is embedded in a department where environmental sciences, agricultural sciences and earth sciences are the main academic topics, says Ana.

Mixed trends for specific countries and universities

Respondents reported an increased enrolment at Bachelor level (BSc), and no change for Master (MSc) and PhD level. Mixed trends could be seen for specific countries and universities, with both increases and decreases in student enrolment. Broad, deep and up-to-date knowledge in soil science will probably increase in importance in the future.

– At the same time, we have seen that two thirds of all responding departments says they have not made any changes in courses or curricula in soil science during later years. With low levels of renewal and with a clear dominance of traditional lecturing it is not obvious that HEIs in Europe will provide the skills in soil science that will be needed in the future, says Ana.

For example, at BSc level the proportion of courses that did not have any computer/modelling component was about 1/3. However, results also suggested that study programs are evolving to include more generic competences as well as active learning methods (e.g. problem-based learning, case studies) which enhance critical thinking or problem-solving skills needed to e.g. adress sustainability problems.

An increased interest in internationalisation

Many respondents reported a significant interest in internationalisation issues. Most departments have or work with strategies for internationalisation and a fairly high ratio stated that they already have, or plan for, international cooperation in programs or courses in soil science. An implication of this is an increased European integration in Higher Education in soil science.

– On the other hand, courses and programs are still tought in native language in many countries, both at BSc and MSc, and even at PhD level. If programs and courses are only given in the native language it significantly reduces the opportunities for students from other countries, says Ana.

Low engagement in digitalisation

Top three priorities for internationalisation were attracting students from abroad, providing more opportunities to send students abroad and developing strategic research partnerships. Very few respondents reported that they work with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are free online courses available for anyone to enroll.

Even if MOOCs are one of many potential new forms of teaching, the low interest might implicate a low engagment in digitalisation and the new options within HE in Europe.

– A more detailed analysis of the results from the survey is ongoing and will be incorporated into the final version of the report due in July 2021, concludes Ana.

Read the draft "Synthesis report on soil science in European Higher Education" here.


Ana Villa Solis, researcher
The Department of Soil and Environment, SLU, +46(0)722 16 43 49

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