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As inventor James Dyson unveils plans to open a new Institute of Technology next year, Higher Education Policy Institute director Nick Hillman responds to claims from universities minister Jo Johnson that the new institution represents a wake-up call for the HE sector.
I welcome the idea of a Dyson university specialising in engineering, just as I have in the past welcomed the other proposed new specialist engineering higher education institution, the New Model of Engineering and Technology in Herefordshire.
Having more engineering students would be a good thing (assuming there are enough qualified school leavers and enough international students still willing to come here). Having more diversity within our higher education sector is also, to my mind, a good thing – not least because we know students particularly value studying in specialist institutions. Moreover, if you tend to think, as I do, that our higher education sector will continue to grow, then it makes sense for some of that growth to occur – as in the past – in new institutions as well as existing ones.
James Dyson’s announcement will come as a relief to universities minister Jo Johnson because the original spin for his reforms to encourage more new providers was that US technology companies like Google or Facebook would enter the higher education sector. But the headlines were always better than the stories, as such companies have no track record in delivering degrees and did not seem all that interested in doing so here in the UK. Now, instead, we have a Brit who has proven himself repeatedly as an innovative and successful head of a major engineering firm interested in directly delivering degrees. Given the proven advantages to students of spending time in the workplace, it is hard to think that the proposed new university will flop.
You still have to look beneath the headlines though. In James Dyson, we are, after all, dealing with someone who has convinced people that it is sensible to spend £300 on a hairdryer. Close up, the new institution may not be quite so different after all. It is not, for example, planning to make use of the new right in the Higher Education and Research Bill to secure probationary degree-awarding powers before building up a track record of providing higher education. To begin with, at least, it is a tie-up with the University of Warwick. It is starting off with just 25students and could, in time, have 400, but even this higher figure is only 40 per cent of the number necessary to call yourself a ‘university’ in recent times (though admittedly this limit is set to disappear).
Even though the landing strip for new providers is becoming smoother and less foggy, everyone I have ever spoken to who has tried to establish a higher education provider has found it harder than they expected at the start. You begin with a bold plan to deliver something different but you then discover that the rules make itsurprisingly hard to do so in practice. Often, the biggest challenges come in relation to student support. For example, you announce you will teach in an accelerated fashion, with degrees completed in two years rather than the more usual three. But you then quickly discover there are big consequences for your students’entitlement to student support (including maintenance support).
Perhaps such problems are not a difficulty for Dyson’s initiative. Perhaps he will always be willing to pay the full tuition costs and a salary to all those who enrol – but, if he does so, it will be abundantly clear that this is a small-scale initiative that is really just an additional recruitment tool for Dyson’s company and not a big new source of engineers boasting lots of transferable skills who directly benefit the economy as a whole. In time, we will know whether it is closer to the successful Dyson vacuum cleaner, which has turned out to be massively influential, or the unsuccessful Dyson washing machine, which was killed after losing the company lots of money.
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