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7 November 2016

Billionaire Brexiteer James Dyson explains why he built his own university

After two decades of asking the government for more engineers, Sir James Dyson is offering students four-year engineering degrees

By Will Dunn

One wall of the new Dyson store on Oxford Street is lined with shelves of small jars that contain dried herbs, grains of rice and cereals. The British tech company has not branched out into ingredients: these are for throwing on the floor. Customers can then vacuum (never use the H-word in a Dyson store) the spilled grains to see how the latest models perform.

“The British Cheerio,” explains James Dyson, “is actually bigger than the American Cheerio. This was an important piece of research, because Cheerios are something that people have difficulty picking up. So we measured the average size of them, with a micrometer.”

Does that mean that somewhere in Dyson’s gleaming new £250m technology campus, there is someone whose job it is to measure cereals? “Yes.” Summing up the practicality and attention to detail he expects of his engineers, Dyson thinks “it’s everybody’s job to measure Cheerios.”

It is these highly skilled engineers that we’re meeting to discuss. As in many other high-tech companies around the world, Dyson is hungry for engineers and scientists, and with the increasing pace and complexity of modern technology, that hunger has become insatiable.

“Everybody believes that life in industry is carrying on as it was,” he explains, “but what’s happening globally is that the technology race is speeding up. To be successful globally, you’ve got to have better technology than the Chinese, the Koreans, the Indians, the Japanese, the Americans, everybody.  And, of course, technology is getting much more sophisticated. We are a hardware producer, but electronics and software cost us more than the hardware in our products – even in things like an electric motor. So, we need three times as many engineers to do a project now than we would have three or four years ago. We literally have to treble our engineering workforce in order to stand still.”

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Dyson himself has long been vocal about the engineering skills gap. “For the last 15 or 20 years, I’ve been bashing on at government that there aren’t enough engineers. We think that the shortage will be something like a million by 2020. So I went to complain to yet another minister, who happened to be Jo Johnson. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you do your own university?’ I thought that was a very good idea, so that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

The new Dyson Institute of Technology, which opened for applications this week, makes engineering students a tempting offer: a full engineering degree, accredited by the University of Warwick, with no fees to the student and a salary for the work they will do during the four-year course at Dyson’s high-tech Malmesbury campus.

“It was a factory,” says Dyson of his company headquarters, “but we’ve added to the buildings in what has become a quite obvious, university-looking campus. At first, I tried to artificially create a campus by having sculptures of students standing around in the quadrangle talking to each other; I don’t need to do that any longer. The average age is very low, because we’re recruiting a lot of graduates in the business, and almost exclusively graduates as engineers. That’s why we built a sports centre, and our cafes are heavily used, as social spaces and work space – a lot of people do work there.”

“So, when Jo Johnson made his suggestion, I saw that all we had to do was add student accommodation, and we were away.” Dyson already works with a 40-strong list of British universities, and students at the Dyson Institute “will be vicariously or directly engaged in projects at other universities. And then there’s going to be an Act that will allow us to award degrees ourselves.”

While this is an important part of Dyson’s plan to double its already 3,000-strong engineering workforce by 2020, the first intake will be only bring in 25 students. Many more will be needed if a million engineers are to be added by 2020.

“The government needs to help. We need to encourage overseas students, many of whom come to Britain to read engineering, to stay afterwards, by guaranteeing them citizenship or visas.”

This is a recognised factor in the engineering gap. Last year, the British Council reported that in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, more than half (52%) of full-time MPhil and PhD students were from overseas. It was also one of the reasons James Dyson was a vocal supporter of Brexit. Is the Institute partly Dyson’s optimistic response to the Leave vote?

“Yes, in the sense that it’s part of seizing control, getting back our sovereignty, being international. We’re a very fast-growing company in Europe, so I’m not anti-Europe at all. It’s a very good market for us. But being international, having control of what you do – as an entrepreneur, I have to feel like that. Joining Europe, for me, was like being taken over by another company.”

As someone with a net worth estimated at around £5bn – much of it, presumably, in pounds – the Brexit vote must surely have cost Dyson himself millions in share values and exchange rates? If he’s annoyed by this suggestion, though, he meets it with an admirable poker face. “I’ve no idea. I know the pound dropped, but I think the pound was talked down. That’s helped our exports, temporarily. Of course it’s made it much harder for people who import things. But I’m sure it will go back up quickly, because it was talked down, it didn’t go down for any good reason.”

The post-referendum economic climate certainly hasn’t dented Dyson’s enthusiasm for investing in the future of his company. The newest of his R&D buildings, a mirrored curve of secrecy, is made from structural glass – “the mirrored glass walls are the glass, there’s nothing else supporting the walls or the roof at that point. It’s the first example of it being used like that. I was terrified, at first – I got a 70-year guarantee from the glass manufacturer.”

Within, engineers and scientists are at work on 25 different projects that account for the £5m per week the company spends on R&D. The students, too, will represent a significant investment. The first intake will have their Warwick fees paid by the company, but at over £27,000 per student – and rising – for a degree, an expanding Institute will need to be able to award its own degrees. Fortunately for Dyson, these powers are likely to become available in the near future, using the reforms set out in the May 2016 whitepaper, Higher education: success as a knowledge economy.

Will the Dyson graduates, as sponsored students, therefore be obliged to stay on as employees? “We’ll have to do something like that. We haven’t yet worked out what it is, but the normal thing is that you have to work three years, and we’ll have to do something like that – if it’s a problem. It’s really our job to make it not a problem. I hope we make life at Dyson interesting, so people will want to stay anyway.”
Dyson will also benefit from owning any commercially useful discoveries the students make during their four years as employee-undergraduates. “That’s common law – if you employ someone to invent things, then you own the inventions.” 

Does Dyson see this industry-plus-academia approach as the future of education? “For engineers, it could well be. For pure science, it could be – we sponsor pure science work at universities, so we could have our own university doing pure science, rather than sponsoring universities. Architectural practices could do it. But languages… I don’t think so. I think a lot of forms of education have to go on in universities. Universities are special places, it’s different to what we’re doing. It’s a different social atmosphere, and I guess that for people who want to have the culture, good and bad, of a university, this might not be the right place. We’re probably going to get more serious people.”

When Dyson emphasises the “good and bad” of university culture, it is in the voice of one who – although he laughs frequently during our interview – clearly considers himself among these “serious people”. In the five years between seeing an industrial cyclone spinning dust out of the air at a sawmill and bringing the principle to market as a bagless vacuum cleaner, Dyson personally made 5,127 prototypes. Those exacting expectations remain today, in that Dyson doesn’t employ technicians.

“All our engineers and scientists build, make and test their own prototypes. Building a prototype is a wonderful thing to do, because you’re building the idea you’ve had. You then test it and watch it fail, with great disappointment but also fascination – why did it fail? – and then you build another prototype to try to overcome that problem. So the students will do that. They will learn by experiment and failure alongside our scientists and engineers.

“It sounds tedious, but it’s the most wonderful journey – all those little successes are in fact big successes, and you end up with something that is totally different, and more complex than what you originally started with. For an engineer, solving all those little problems and overcoming them is a fascinating journey.”