Report of Workshop on "Energising successful studentship schemes"

“Energising successful studentship schemes”

AFCP Workshop 30 March 2011

The day divided neatly and naturally into four parts: Setting the scene: reasons for organising this workshop; Funding opportunities currently available; How we do/should make best use of studentship funding; How we can move forward positively.

Setting the scene: reasons for this workshop

Paul Biscoe“Why this workshop and what do we want to achieve?”  

AFCP Chief Executive and Workshop Chairman

He explained that the reasons for running this workshop were: how best to tackle the severe funding constraints affecting both charities and institutions through low interest rates and government cuts; to bring together the range of organisations able to support studentships; to emphasise that studentships are an important means of addressing research priorities and the current skills shortages; and to discuss how to make studentship schemes work effectively.

He pointed out that the successful flow of studentship funds depended very much on these institutions understanding industry priorities, liaising with universities and colleges and working with charities on jointly funded projects.  He remained to be convinced that there was “joined up thinking and understanding” across these sectors to address these industry priorities . . . perhaps this workshop could quite literally “work” to address this critical issue and suggest some positive steps to improve matters.

Graham Jellis, “What charities are currently doing”.

Trustee of The Perry Foundation, Chairman of its Grants Committee and Chairman of Crop Evaluation Ltd

He had recently circulated 20 AFCP listed charities with some questions on studentship funding . . .8 replied saying that they did and 7 were currently doing so. In all 45 studentships were being funded, around 2 to 3 a year per charity (the average length being three years). Most studentships are joint funded . . . so here is a great opportunity for collaboration between charities.

Some charities have a very specific remit, be it regional or special interest such as crops or livestock . . . three areas of current topical interest were soil, plant and animal disease and utilising agricultural waste.

He said there seems to be no simple answer to the question of how students are selected . . . it could be by the nature of the project, by the relationship with a particular institute or simply by the quality of the student . . . it doesn’t seem to be driven by industry priorities. He speculated that maybe AFCP could have a potential role here in identifying these and disseminating the information on its website.

Returning to the theme of collaboration he saw a number of obstacles confronting both students and institutions . . . no clear timing of calls for applications, far too many complicated application forms, little advice for students on the process of application and obtaining joint funding and, to repeat, no liaison between charities on research priorities. Understandably, charities do not wish to lose their individuality but they must surely collaborate more in future to ensure best use of increasingly scarce funds.

Funding opportunities currently available

Kim Matthews  “Levy Board Studentships”

Head of R&D at EBLEX

He gave a brief outline of why they supported studentship funding . . . it delivered good research economically . . . it developed scientists for the future . . . and it had the additional benefits of potentially being more speculative and maintaining links to collaborators. It was able to cover very broad areas such as environmental issues, genetics, animal health, improving performance and product quality.

The call for applications was issued to institutions in December, applications received in January/February and awards made in March . . . typically from 40 applications just three would be awarded. Selection criteria would be meeting industry needs, quality of the science, novelty of the idea, track record of delivery and selection of the project, not the student.  Each student is assigned a project manager and attends an annual seminar at which, over two days, students present their projects.

There is some limited cooperation with other organisations and any further collaboration would have to accommodate industry needs . . . coordination of process is the biggestproblem.

Simon Cutler  “What opportunities does BBSRC offer for collaboration on Studentships?”.

BBSRC Senior Innovation & Skills Programme Manager

He gave a detailed and technical presentation of BBSRC’s substantial annual research budget of £470 million to fund innovative, internationally competitive bioscience research, to train bioscientists, to support knowledge exchange and encourage economic and social impact and to engage with the public and stakeholders.

BBSRC expects to fund 15 to 20 Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs), mostly multi-institutional, for 3 years (2012 to 2014) with a total investment of £60 million funding 220 students a year. The call for applications was issued on 16 March 2011 with a closing date for applications in September 2011 . . . for brief details we recommend viewing Simon’s presentation slides on the AFCP website or, for more detailed information visit

He also gave details of CASE industrial studentship schemes: annual high quality collaborative postgraduate research training funding around 90 studentships a year.

BBSRC’s key thrust is to develop Advanced Training Partnerships (ATPs) to support the uptake of industry-relevant specialist and technical professional development to help businesses in key sectors to take up new science and innovation.

Katie Tearall “Opportunities within BBSRC Research and Technology Clubs”.

BBSRC Senior Business Interface Manager   

She explained that the basic concept is that industry identifies generic research challenges and, once accepted, there is “common pot funding” with BBSRC contributing 90% and the industry partners 10% on a sliding scale dependent upon the organisation size. There are now four Clubs up and running and BBSRC is inviting charities, through the auspices of AFCP, to support the studentships associated with the successful Crop Improvement Research Club (CIRC) projects by funding each studentship for £1,000/year, to enable the student to obtain business training. The support for the studentship would allow the charities access to the full programme of research from the CIRC projects.

How we do/should make best use of studentships

Dr Ron ConstanjeStudentships in Higher Education & Research”

Lecturer, School of Applied Sciences, Cranfield University

He is a major fan of graduate students who he describes as “indispensible”! . They add breadth, depth, an ability to add cutting edge research, can challenge and develop members of the research team, will support ongoing research efforts and add energy and excitement. Students will develop and articulate particular research issues (often a sponsoring Trust will ask awkward but important questions!), will develop partnerships with funding agencies and have an impact on the wider agrifood industry.

But, of course, there are also downsides . . . a limit on the scope of the programmes (one to three year individual programmes) . . . often linked to practical outcomes with limited “blue sky” thinking . . . and a lack of good quality students. It is also unclear as to which bodies are out there to help fund studentships, what are their objectives, their scope and their ability to arrange co-funding .

David Lawrence “How do studentships operate & support the Further Education sector?

Principal, Easton College, Norfolk

He made a short, impassioned presentation for support for those school pupils in higher education who didn’t either want to or didn’t qualify for university education, but who wanted to continue  vocational education in Further Education (FE).  But they needed financial support to be able to do so . . . certainly in the agrifood industry they had a potentially critical role to play.

He was seeing a severe cutback in central and local government funding in a variety of ways (such as travel concessions) . . . he was fortunate in having the strong support of a loyal charity . . . surely more charities could become involved in helping out this important sector of the future agrifood industry.

How we can move forward positively

Peter Redman, “What are the issues and opportunities?”

Trustee of Douglas Bomford Trust and Director of AFCP

The key thrust of his presentation was how best could collaboration be achieved when there were so many different players with so many different objectives. Charities are by nature conservative . . . some, but by no means all, are aware of the benefits of shared and delegated administration . . . so, for some, there remains the opportunity to contribute to larger, more effective projects . . . this could/should lead to a more direct link to industry priorities and strategies.

But, generally speaking, outside of the key players mentioned in Graham Jellis’s early presentation, how aware are most charities of the opportunities? How confusing are multiple arrangements and timetables? . . . how much more convenient would be a single point of access? . . . and a “Partnership Clearing House? He questioned a possible role for AFCP here.

Paul Biscoe in drawing the Workshop to a conclusion sought contributions from the floor . . .

National or international priorities? . . . depends on each charity’s remit but most are national . . . the major advantage of international projects is access to a wider source of funds (Toni Slabas, Durham University).

Most projects nowadays do have wider international ramifications (Melanie Hall, NFU South West).

Major problem nowadays is keeping students in the UK after their PhD for the benefit of UK farming and food since projects are by law open to all E U members . . . is there any way of promoting British PhD studentships? (Leon Terry, Cranfield University).

Shame about the demise of the highly rated LINK schemes . . . is there a role for AFCPto take over in its stead? . . . No, AFCP remains a facilitator keeping trustees aware of industry schemes and projects but could consider some form of additional resource  over and above the website to be more active in the information dissemination process, . . . this, of course has funding implications (Richard Holland, Dartington Cattle Breeding Trust).

Don’t forget that there are training organisations also looking for students (Tony Pexton, NIAB).

There should be a determined attempt to align the timing of calls for students as well as ensuring high quality process by learning from the likes of BBSRC (David Shannon, Perry Foundation).

Timing is critical . . . and the process should be simplified (Emma Jackson, Royal Agricultural College).

The timing and timetable should be driven by what best suits the students (Roger Williams, Royal Horticultural Society).

Studentships cost around £24,000 a year, of which, typically, 50% is funded by the likes of BBSRC (Richard Napier, Warwick University).

Some charities do have historic regional priorities but the Charity Commissioners are more than happy to change a charity’s remit given good cause (Stephen Cobbold, Felix Thornley Cobbold).

John Reynolds of AFCP ventured the prospect of one common Application Form with coordination of Application Dates.

Roger Williams of Royal Horticultural Society would welcome “harmonisation”.

Melanie Hall of NFU/South West agreed this would be a step in the right direction.

Toni Slabas of Durham University felt that setting industry priorities was the number one objective with a common Application Process. A collaborative approach required shared objectives.

David Shannon of The Perry Foundation agreed that both coordination of timing and early processing of applications was desirable but that it would need major charities’ willingness to collaborate. His charity had just redrafted their Application Form and would be happy to share it with others.

He felt that any central liaison point (such as in AFCP) would need a person who could be a conduit for a source of detailed information and support.

He also felt that the two day student seminar organised by AHDP should be open to students who had not qualified for studentship grants in order to open their eyes to what was available . . . cross learning and cross processing were invaluable.

Graham Jellis mentioned that the BCPC Board were organising CropWorld at the Excel Centre in London from 31 October to 02 November 2011 . . . he would encourage post graduate students to attend. He was considering having a student day/session tagged on to the general proceedings. . . would any charity or organisation wish to be involved in this process? . . . general affirmation from the floor meant that he would follow this up by getting in touch with potential supporters/sponsors.

Roger Williams of the Royal Horticultural Society felt that the key to solving any studentship issues was threefold: proper funding, good supervision and the right topic (such as agricultural engineering or soils, for example).

Simon Cutler of BBSRC described the whole issue of studentships as “a complex offering, a complex landscape” where it was necessary to identify key partners . . . there had been lots of consultation . . . what was now needed was prioritisation (agreed industry objectives) and for charities to agree their overall strategy towards studentships.