Survey on soil science in higher education shows desire for stronger cross European collaboration

The EU has realized the importance of strengthening research and capacity in soil science to meet both global and local challenges in sustainable and climate smart soil management. However, only 10% of higher education institutes have dedicated soil science departments. Building the human capacity will therefore be critical.

Students in the field visit to till formation. Photo by Jennie Barron

What if global diseases came from soils and affected water or food?

With COVID-19, we have experienced the importance of strong and responsive capacity in research to address societal challenges like the COVID pandemic and the development of public–private resources for the vaccine.  Soil science for healthy soils and production of nutritious food and sustainable ecosystems, is one such fundamental issue. But shocks and risks persist: what happens if a disease or pollution stems from soils and affects water or food?

Students today will be the researchers, farmers, innovators and decision makers tomorrow. Our higher education system need to equip these new generations of experts to  solve both known and unknown challenges - to manage soils for food, environment and climate.

In the EJP SOIL work package ‘Education, training and capacity building’ researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), led this survey on the current European state of soil science education and teaching at BSc, MSc and PhD level. More than 80 universities and research institutions in 25 countries have contributed to this unique baseline. The survey covers areas such as teaching and research capacity, academic topics and degrees offered, student enrolment, courses and learning approaches, internationalization and diversity, and job market for graduates.

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.

Results from the survey show that currently the majority of soil science is embedded in a department where environmental sciences, agricultural sciences and earth sciences are the main academic topics.

Mixed trends for enrolment numbers in specific countries and universities

Respondents report an increased enrolment at Bachelor level (BSc), and no change for Master (MSc) and PhD level. Mixed trends is seen for specific countries and universities, with both increases and decreases in student enrolment.

Students in the field. Photo by Jennie Barron

Broad, deep and up-to-date knowledge in soil science will probably increase in importance in the future. Findings show that very few changes have been made in courses or curricula in soil science during last years. With low levels of renewal and with a clear dominance of traditional lecturing it is questionable whether HEIs in Europe currently provides the skills needed in soil science for current and future challenges.

For example, at BSc level the proportion of courses that do not have computer/modelling component is about 1/3. However, results suggest 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 address sustainability problems.

An increased interest in internationalization

Many respondents reported a significant interest in internationalization of soil science courses and programs, both for students and staff.  Most departments (86%) have or work with strategies for internationalization and many state (69%) that they have, or plan for, international cooperation in programs or courses in soil science. These existing or expressed ambitions is a real opportunity for increased European integration in Higher Education in soil science. Three top mechanisms were identified by respondents for internationalization. Firstly, to attract students from abroad, secondly to provide more opportunities for international students exchange, and thirdly to develop strategic research partnerships.

However, courses and programs are still taught in native languages in many countries, both at BSc and MSc, and even at PhD level. This significantly reduces the opportunities for students from other countries.

An example of such international collaboration in soil science education is the International Master of science in SOils and GLObal change programme (IMSOGLO) organized through a different initiative albeit by EJP SOIL partners. According to Dr. Sophie Zechmeister-Boltenstern (Head of Institute of Soil Research at University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna) an increasing number of students wanted to go deep into soil science education and ask for help in putting together an individual study programme with many soil science courses.

Dr. Sophie Zechmeister-Boltenstern is one of the driving forces behind the realization of the International Master of Science in SOils and GLObal change programme (IMSOGLO). This 2-year programme leads to the joint diploma of International Master of science in Soils & Global Change. Students get the basics of soil science and then choose either the specialization “Soil biogeochemistry and global change” or the specialization “Physical land resources and global change”. These specializations are organized by BOKU University, Ghent University, University of Göttingen and Aarhus University.

EJP SOIL aiming at strengthening education, training and capacity building

EJP SOIL aims at strengthening the training of emerging and established scientists working on agricultural soils across Europe. In addition, the programme aims at delivering a PhD/MSc course program - providing support for staff exchange /visiting scientist, and contributing to capacity building of a larger audience such as farmer advisors. This will be done by organizing courses on new tools for soil management and publishing educational material on the EJP SOIL Website. This baseline survey will inform several actions in EJP SOIL, including the PhD School that will serve to integrate a new generation of soil researchers, and the staff exchange enabling  current researchers to strengthen network with fellow soil science institutions 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.


This article is written based on interviews with Dr. Sophie Zechmeister-Boltenstern (Head of Institute of Soil Research at University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna and leader of the EJP SOIL work package ‘Synthesis & Knowledge’, and written responses from Dr. Ana Villa Solis (Researcher), Dr. Jennie Barron (Professor and EJP SOIL WP lead « Education, Training and capacity Building, and Erik Fahlbeck (Sr researcher), The Department of Soil and Environment, SLU, Sweden.

This work was supported by EJP SOIL and SLU.

For further information:

A draft report presenting the preliminary results is available at:

If you would like to know more about the preliminary results, please contact Dr Ana Villa Solis (contact details below).    


Dr Ana Villa Solis, Researcher - The Department of Soil and Environment, SLU, SE:

Dr. Sophie Zechmeister-Boltenstern (Head of Institute of Soil Research at University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna:

Line Carlenius Berggreen, EJP SOIL National communication representative, DCA Aarhus University, DK: