Dame Fiona Reynolds ready to embrace change at Royal Agricultural University

By Ian Mean, Business West Gloucestershire director
Dame Fiona Reynolds 3

The ability to inspire, in my view, is a key quality for any leader, and Dame Fiona Reynolds, the new chair of the governing council of the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester perfectly fits into that category.

At the age of 63, the former Director-general of the National Trust, and most recently Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, faces a big challenge.

I am not alone in thinking that the RAU has – to many in Gloucestershire – been living in a rather shut-off world, certainly not close to business and to a lot of our young people who might be interested in agriculture and food production as a career.

Dame Fiona accepts this criticism and gave very honest answers to some tough questions:

IM: The RAU is the oldest agricultural university in the world but its standing now does not seem to match that history?

FR: “The story of the RAU has not been a golden path. It has always had challenges – partly because it never had an endowment.

“So, the story has periodically been to re-invent ourselves, reach out to new audiences and new collaborators and to look for students in new places.

”I take the place as it is. I am not looking backwards, I am looking forwards.

“I think this is such a moment of opportunity. The world is saying: What do we need from farming?

“You can’t just do one thing with land. It is not about nature or farming, it is about farming for nature.

“But also farming for food, and farming for all kinds of entrepreneurs. The opportunity is there to be taken.

“What the country needs is regenerative agriculture, sustainable farming, an entrepreneurial food culture and food system. That’s what we have got to be part of.

“We have got, therefore, to think about what we are teaching and what kinds of skills our graduates need.

“We are going to be collaborating with business, with other universities and other sectors. This is not an eyes down, heads down enterprise – it is a big arms open enterprise, working with others.

“So, that’s what we are going do and it is going to take a while.”

IM: What is your vision to bring the RAU back into today’s world of agriculture?

FR: “There is now the biggest change in farm policy since 1947. I have been a student of agricultural policy and worked with it all my life. This is a moment of complete change. We have not seen anything like it and currently farmers feel let down, they don’t know what the government expects of them and the government has not been clear enough in response to questions about what funding will be available for what.

“Our job is to train the young people who are going to have the appetite, the ideas, the resilience and skills to help shape the future of how we manage the countryside.”

IM: Where is money coming from to fund badly-needed research?

FR: “We are not primarily a research-based university: what we do is collaborate with others. Our academics build their research profiles as an adjunct to their teaching or as a partnership with other institutions.

“Therefore for me at the moment, the answer is collaboration and partnership.

IM: Isn’t there a great opportunity for the RAU to really drive the National Food Strategy?

FR: “We are very engaged in that. Just think about the Cotswolds and its range of farm products.

“Everybody is interested in food provenance, and we are going out to talk to local businesses about doing things together—whether teaching, research or business development. Our business courses are as relevant as our land-based courses.

“One of the issues people are concerned about is healthy food and access for people of poorer backgrounds to healthy food.

“There are lots of players here. What I think would be very interesting  would be to support the best ideas in food production.

“Can we be a catalyst to bring people together to create an investment environment where good local ideas can be translated into something that has potential viability? A lot of it is about scaling up.

“For me, it is not talking about ourselves any more. It is about talking to our investors and business.

“We’ve known for a while that we need to position ourselves, not just locally, but in the country.

“I think government is easily criticised. That is not our business.

“Our business is that we can help make a reality of future ideas for a vibrant, sustainable countryside, where farming could benefit from being more entrepreneurial.”

IM: If you were Prime Minister what would you do for farming and food?

FR: “For me there are three big things we have to get right.

“We have to manage land sustainably. We haven’t paid enough attention to soil. We haven’t paid enough attention to the fundamental health of the environment in which we produce food.

“Everybody should be incentivised to manage land sustainably. It probably does mean more mixed farming again.

It also means having a sound system for managing water.

“My no 2 would be genuinely sustainable food production with shortened food chains. Teaching children to cook and loving English vegetables. Making a real virtue of sustainably produced food.

“And my number 3? I get really worried about land—that makes me passionate. What we are asking of land at the moment is huge. There is no framework to help us make the best use of land.

“We are asking land to help us to get to net zero; we are asking land to absorb lots of houses and supply water to us. At the moment it often just happens where it happens; we need a better framework.”

IM: Do you have a clear vision where the RAU is headed?

“Professor Peter McCaffery as Vice Chancellor is at the heart of all this—he is great and is already working on these ideas.

“That vision is composed of the big story—where is the place for the RAU in the future? This is the time to grasp the big opportunity.

“Within that what do we teach and how do we do it? What are the skills and attributes we want of our graduates? What is our offer?

“We must be a sustainable organisation and we will, therefore, be looking to grow student numbers.

What’s the attraction of the RAU to a young person?

“Farming and food used to be seen as peripheral and niche.But young people today completely grasp the importance of carbon, nature and net zero. So, we have to position ourselves in that space.

“If they are interested in the contribution the land makes they should come here. Young people are changing and they want to be in this business.

“We need to tell them what we are doing, and I am not sure we tell them that enough.

“This is one of the main challenges in marketing terms, reaching schools with our message, being proactive, and telling our story.”

*Ian Mean is vice chair of GFirstLEP and former editor of the Western Daily Press.