A conversation with 1990 Scholar Brendon Smart on the modern history of Nuffield Australia.
"The modern era of Nuffield Australia has been a time of great change. It has seen the organisation gain independence, corporatize its structure and provide unparalleled global educational opportunities to more Australian primary producers than ever before or by any other organisation.
Gaining independence and corporate evolution
Nuffield Australia gained independence in 1976, following its long-standing alliance and financial dependence on the UK Nuffield Farming Trust. To continue to operate and send scholars overseas, the organisation had to become financially independent.
At the time, Australia had around 50 scholars. Two of these scholars, Robert Beggs and George Wilson, had a vision to keep Nuffield going here in Australia and the other participating non-UK countries. George quickly gained the commitment of the other countries and established Nuffield Australia to raise funds and continue the program in Australia.
It signified a new era for Nuffield Australia. At that time, it was able to support two to three scholars (alternate states) each year. In short, a state was eligible to send a scholar every three years on a rotational basis.
The administration and management were run out of the Royal Show Society office’s in Melbourne where attendance of all meetings was open, and scholars attended at their own cost.
The value of the program was becoming well recognised but it was obvious that, for Nuffield to make a real difference, more scholars needed to be selected. 1996 saw the selection of four scholars growing to six by 2000.
Harry Perkins, as Chairman of Nuffield Australia from 1995 to 1998, guided the organisation through an external review process culminating in widespread corporate support.
This necessitated the change from a committee type management structure to an incorporated unlisted public company, in 2000, and the employment of a full time CEO.
They were challenging times in developing relations with the right investor, settling down the management of quite an ambitious organisation, building the corporate reserves (to become the Harry Perkins Fund) and selecting increasing numbers of scholars without compromising quality.
The external review identified many likely “fits” with investors and Nuffield with some choosing the “Harry Fund” as their preferred support and others like the RDC’s, and the GRDC in particular, choosing to invest directly in funding a scholar.
Supporting more scholars
Under the new corporate structure, the goal was to increase the number of scholars participating in the program. If the organisation was serious about supporting Australian agriculture and the next wave of talent, it needed to select 15 to 25 scholars every year.
The journey was inspirational! In 1995 we invested circa $30,000 into two scholars and 20 years later we invested circa $1 million into 25 scholars. Harry Perkin’s dream that Nuffield could and must make an even bigger difference to Australian agriculture grew into reality over 20 short years.
All areas of Australia have been impacted by these greater numbers across a hugely diverse production base.
In my area of South Australia, for instance, numbers went from four scholars to 22 over the course of 15 years. There was a vision to ‘dare to dream’ and that Nuffield needed to lift its number of scholars, but equally important, retain its rigorous selection process.
The strength of the program relies on this process. After applications are shortlisted and initial interviews occur, states send their preferred candidate(s) to nationals. The process is the same today; ensuring successful scholars demonstrate the qualities to make positive change in the sector.
In particular, the selection criteria has three key pillars. It looks at where you have been, where you are, and where you are going. The age range spans approximately 28-45 years old, and applicants must spend the majority of their time as an owner, operator or manager in a primary production business.
As with all organisations, Nuffield has become quite professional in its connection with its stakeholders and the announcement of scholars, once declared at the completion of interviews whilst standing around waiting, is now the focus of an annual gala event including investors, alumni, recipients and their families.
Global Focus Program
Previously known as the Core Study Program, the tours saw all non-UK Scholars travel to the UK for six weeks as a group before commencing private study. This did not include UK Nuffield scholars, who had their own travel program. However, in the early 2000s, there were two changes.
The first being the name change from Core Study Program to Global Focus Program, with the latter being a more accurate descriptor of the global study tours which were now travelling through multiple countries in groups of up to 12 on a well organised highly focused learning agenda.
The second was the creation of the Contemporary Scholars Conference in 2006 whereby ALL scholars selected to travel in that year compulsory attend this weeklong familiarization and learning forum.
Country Executives and the Nuffield International Board also attend this function which is an ideal forum to foster the many “friends of Nuffield” needed for its function.
Held in different countries in March of each year, like the GFP, it has become a benchmark and visible demonstration of the vision of Lord Nuffield and the Alumni who have kept his vision alive.
Where to next
Nuffield has never been a lobby group or a policy-maker, rather an organisation that manages investor funds to assist in the professional and personal development of Australia’s dynamic primary producers. The evolution of Nuffield has, and will always be, on the strength of scholars that it selects."