Wingate Scholarships and the 'Wingate Factor' - Dr Harriet Harvey-Wood, OBE

In January 1988 a small but distinguished group of people sat down to discuss a proposal to establish scholarships to be funded by the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation. The group consisted of Martyn Goff (Chairman), Tony and Roger Wingate, the late Lord Dainton, Jeremy Isaacs, Sir Roy Shaw, Richard Hoggart and Robert Cassen. The objective was to support ‘creative or original work of intellectual, scientific, artistic, social or environmental value’; they agreed that any work supported must be of potential benefit to others, must further academic study, contribute to the well-being of society or widen human knowledge and understanding. A committee was set up, consisting of the original group, with A S Byatt, Robert Ponsonby and Brian Wenham replacing Jeremy Isaacs and Sir Roy Shaw, who were too busy to serve; further advisers were added later. Guidelines were worked out, a job not made easier by the wide range of subjects to be supported, an application form was invented, and the scholarships were in business. Since then scholarships have been given in subjects ranging from scuttle flies and autism to Robert Southey and music; a large sum of money has been distributed where (it was hoped) it would do most good.

I replaced A S Byatt as the ‘English’ academic advisor in 1990, and found that these are not quite ordinary scholarships. There is something involved, generally known as ‘the Wingate factor’, which is not confined to the values listed above, but which embraces what might be defined as a preference for oddballs. To some extent, this is dictated by the limited funds at our disposal. We are much smaller than schemes like the British Academy and Leverhulme, but also much less bureaucratic - fewer rules, fewer hurdles. Various nationality criteria apply, a minimum age limit of 24 applies but there is no upper age limit and there are no minimum educational requirements. Taught courses of any kind are rigorously excluded. Otherwise, pretty well anything goes.

Increasingly, with cuts in university funding, applications are for support for PhD degrees, and occasionally these do get through; we reckon some of them among our greatest successes (for example the doctoral thesis produced by a former H Block prisoner, and the work on Southey which is being produced by a young scholar who has been blind from infancy). But these are rarely the applications which are greeted with cries of joy. It is not, we feel, our business to fill this increasingly serious gap in mainstream educational provision. Post-doctoral research is a different matter. But what we are particularly looking for are the slightly eccentric applications, which straddle conventional boundaries and would fall between any number of stools elsewhere – for example, an application from a woman who left school at 13 and wanted to study Victorian literature or from someone from a fairground family who planned to set up an important archive on fairground people. The absence of rigid rules enabled us to support them; it is unlikely that anyone else would have done so.

From the beginning, the Committee refused to use money on advertising which might fund scholarships, so we have been dependent on distributing posters and leaflets and on word of mouth and the internet to make the existence of the scholarships known. This works well, and we have had many good applicants who have been referred to us by previous scholars. Applying for a Wingate Scholarship is a serious business: there is a fairly demanding form to fill in, three referees must be supplied, and only a small proportion of those who apply will be offered an interview. If they are interviewed and convince the committee that they are worth supporting, they will probably be warned that, in order to make the resources stretch as far as possible, they may not be offered as much money as they applied for. But if they can convince the interview panel that they have that extra something we are looking for – the ‘Wingate factor’ – we may find ourselves fired by the interviewee’s enthusiasm for the project, as we have been so often and so enjoyably in the past, and we may be able to help.

Dr Harriet Harvey-Wood, OBE
English Academic Advisor and Committee member.