Back in December 2020 we held our annual IFNH Forum on the importance of interdisciplinary working to successfully address food system challenges and solve global hunger. These significant challenges were touched on again, this time as part of the launch event for IFNH’s new Education and Professional Training Hub (EPTH) held earlier this month.

The current pandemic has focused the minds of many on both sustainability and the wider well-being of society.

But a highly skilled workforce is required to understand societal impact and meet the resulting challenges related to health, inequalities and sustainable and nutritious food production across the globe. Businesses, NGOs and individuals all need professional training and skills development opportunities to lead effective business enhancement, innovation and sustainable food systems.

Given the current situation, the launch of the new IFNH Education and Professional Training Hub is timely. Having listened closely over the years to what businesses require and the different modes of delivery and flexibility that individual students need, the EPTH brings the two together. It provides high level, flexible training for those employed in the health, food and agriculture sectors to deepen their knowledge, advance their skills and progress their careers. Learning is designed to fit around and complement everybody’s’ working life, from short courses to part-time postgraduate degrees across five thematic areas: food and nutrition, environment and sustainability, food regulation and information, sustainable livestock production, and health and pharmacy.

The University is a world leader in Agriculture and Food so offering professional training in this area is a natural next step and plays to our strengths. The University has expertise in this area, having offered professional training in healthcare for many years through the Centre for Inter-Professional Postgraduate Education and Training (CIPPET). We then moved into the agrifood space through the Food ATP and the Agrifood Training Partnership (AFTP) led by Professor Carol Wagstaff, Head of School, Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy, University of Reading. This experience set the groundwork for what we offer today through the EPTH – which is not just a repository of courses, but a learning journey where students are supported and encouraged to think about their long-term professional development. Asking ‘why are you learning?’ is at the heart of what we do.

Our previous experience has taught us that knowing and understanding our students is critical. Professional learners are atypical for universities: they are almost always practitioners working within the sector, diverse in roles and experience, and many are a long time out of mainstream education. They are highly motivated without exception, but they are time-constrained and have conflicting work and personal priorities. By offering a body of courses that can be taken on an ad hoc basis for continuing professional development, we have found that people like the process of learning and have seen a slow burn work for a number of people.

The importance of students taking responsibility for their own learning needs and following their own pathway is highlighted by student testimonies. One student came to professional training with over 30 years’ experience working in the food industry but still feeling there were “a few pieces of the jigsaw missing”. Another student started with a professional and educational background in business and felt a taught element was important to understand food science and broader global trends and sustainability issues, before going on to pursue the part-time professional doctorate (DAgriFood). Both students stressed the importance of having course content that is relevant to food businesses: from writing assignment reports on topical subjects such as Brexit which have been of particular use to their employer, to gaining transferrable skills in consumer insight that directly resulted in impact, innovation and adding consumer health to the corporate agenda.

As well as individuals wanting to develop their own professional skills base, training also needs to be in line with employers’ skills needs. The 2017 Foresight report ‘Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning’ identified a real mismatch: “Skills under-utilisation is particularly high in the UK, while at the same time there are shortages of some particular high-level skills”. The ever changing and increasingly complex global regulatory environment prompted PepsiCo to work with University of Reading and EIT Food to provide regulatory education for their associates. PepsiCo see their employees as the organisation’s biggest asset and building and developing regulatory affairs competencies helps address both the external regulatory challenges facing the business, whilst focusing on the growth and development of associates which is core to the business.

As the working landscape changes in response to food system challenges and the fast-evolving food and agricultural industries, individuals and organisations must have opportunities to reskill. By developing our education and training in partnership with industry, the IFNH EPTH brings together the latest academic scientific research with the market needs of industry, to help professionals develop skills that create a robust and technologically advanced agrifood industry that is more efficient, more profitable, more sustainable, and ultimately fit to face future challenges.

Please visit the IFNH Education & Professional Training Hub for more information.

Professor Ian Givens is Director of the Institute for Food Nutrition and Health and Professor of Food Chain Nutrition.