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Jo Johnson: Dyson Institute of Technology

Today, Friday 4 November, Dyson announced that it will be launching an Institute of Technology in partnership with Warwick University that will offer engineering degree apprenticeships to twenty five students a year. The succesful applications will work for Dyson in their engineering or product development teams while earning their qualification.

Few organisations embody the spirit of great British invention quite like Dyson. Over its 25 year history, the firm has not only become a global success, it has also promoted great engineering right here at home.

Today’s welcome announcement that the firm will now be setting up its own higher education institution is emblematic of its far-sighted approach. The new Dyson Institute of Technology will help us tackle the chronic shortages of engineers that have long held us back as an economy.  It will contribute to the re-tooling and upgrading of our skills base at the heart of this government’s industrial strategy.

Students at the Institute will have the chance to study on a cutting edge degree programme, delivered in partnership with Warwick University.  They will help develop new products alongside some 3,000 of the industry’s brightest engineers at Dyson’s headquarters in Wiltshire. This is a great innovation and testament to Dyson’s commitment to engineering in this country, but this is only the first step for them.

Dyson aims to take advantage of our reforms in the Higher Education and Research Bill, now before Parliament, which will give high quality institutions a direct route to degree awarding powers and university status in their own right. Without these reforms Dyson would have no choice but to continue to partner with another institution, no matter how good its own offer is or how much academic expertise it has.

Such new entrants at present have to compete on an uneven playing field. The biggest barrier is the requirement that a new entrant must find (and usually pay) an incumbent institution to ‘validate’ its courses and issue degrees on its behalf for a number of years before it can apply to award its own. No other sector of the economy, including others involving major lifetime decisions such as mortgages or pensions, sees one provider beholden to another in this manner. A brake on competition, it is analogous to Tesla being required to share its intellectual property and branding with BMW, or Byron Burger having to make and sell Big Macs in its restaurants. Innovation suffers. At a time when students are crying out for new ways of studying, the market share of the traditional three year degree programme has actually increased from 65% to 78% over the last five years.

While the UK has the world’s best research universities, we need a higher education system that also prioritises teaching and helps students to learn in more flexible ways. This includes accelerated degrees that offer a faster route into the labour market, more programmes offering work placements and more opportunities for part-time and lifelong learning. Our reforms will make it easier and quicker for innovative new institutions like the Dyson Institute of Technology to do just that. We will strip existing universities of the power to act like bouncers, deciding who should and should not be let into the club, will help high quality providers tap unmet demand for different ways of learning. If we are to build an economy that works for everyone, we must make sure that the lifetime advantages higher education can bring are available to everyone with the potential to benefit from a university experience.

This is also vital if we are to solve our productivity challenge, as we know there’s a strong correlation between opening universities, widening participation and increasing economic growth. The London School of Economics recently found that a per capita doubling in the number of universities is associated with over 4 per cent higher per capita GDP. Meanwhile we continue to suffer cold spots in counties such as Somerset and Hereford, which have no universities at all.

Quality will, of course, remain of fundamental importance – the new independent regulatory body, the Office for Students, will respect institutional autonomy and academic freedoms, but also ensure that all institutions, new and old, sustain the high standards expected of the English university system. Change, inevitably, generates anxiety, especially when it has the potential to disrupt long established models.It is striking, though, the extent to which we’ve heard the same arguments against new entrants at every period of university expansion. In the 1820s, UCL – now a pillar of academic excellence – was dismissed as ‘a Cockney University’. Similar disdain met the decision of the civic colleges in Manchester, Birmingham, and Bristol to become 'red brick' universities before the First World War, and the creation in the 1960s of several now world-leading universities, among them  Warwick and York. Many will also remember the ferocious opposition to the 1992 reforms that allowed the Polytechnics to convert into a wave of new universities.  All the arguments made against allowing new entrants over the decades find echoes today.

As participation in higher education rises to meet demand from employers for graduate level skills, students should have the opportunity to choose from the widest range of courses. And those offered by recent entrants now count among the most successful in the sector. Take the College of Law, which only became a university in 2012, but came joint first for overall student satisfaction in this year’s National Student Survey, (alongside the University of Buckingham, an independent institution born in the 1960s).

We should welcome the Dyson Institute of Technology and all the other new players that will follow its lead through our reforms. They hold the key to our success as a knowledge economy.

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