‘For Dyson and most modern, high-tech businesses, the critical shortage is of highly skilled engineers, scientists, mathematicians and coders. We need the sharpest graduates, with an approach to problem-solving that allows them to conceive new technologies. These are the brains that will help us to generate the algorithms, software, hardware and intellectual property that we need to stand a chance at exporting. The success of Singapore shows the benefits of a focus on technology education, a high-value economy and exports. There, 40 per cent of graduates are engineers and it is a brilliant place to develop technology.’
As a late June event, The Times’ annual CEO summit offers a valuable moment of reflection for the UK business community. One year on from Brexit, the dust of division still swirling, one theme was universal: the urgent need for training and education ‘to equip the workforce with the skills to meet the needs of employers, lift productivity and drive economic growth.’
We are in the midst of a skills crisis in the UK. We now rank in the bottom 4 OECD developed nations for literacy and numeracy skills among 16-24 year olds. Our companies invest less than any EU country in training workforce. Engineering and manufacturing firms – the major focus of the government’s post-Brexit industrial strategy – are battling a shortfall of 20,000 qualified graduates a year, and increasingly depend on overseas talent at a time when freedom of movement is in jeopardy. An additional 1.8m engineers and technically qualified people are needed by 2025.
The scale of the problem is vast, its roots are deep, and strategies are so far lacklustre. For Sir James Dyson, the solution is clear: ‘Degree-level education is the real battleground.’ Apprenticeships and mentoring are valuable, he argues, but not radical enough; the new Apprenticeship Levy – which promises to generate £2.5bn in apprenticeship investments by 2020 – is a ‘blunt instrument… demanding that all businesses pay a tax to fund skills that only a few need’.
As the recent Higher Education and Research Bill argued, companies can and must take a leading role in shaping the educational future of our nation. This September will see the opening of the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology. Its cohorts, as Sir Dyson writes, will ‘be “proper” Dyson engineers and scientists from day one. They will work with leading practitioners on real products, for real homes. They will do this alongside their studies. They will receive two and a half times the learning time of a conventional university. They will be at our university 47 weeks a year; double the 24 weeks at Oxford and Cambridge, for four years rather than three.’ They will also have zero tuition fees.
His editorial in The Times last month was a rallying cry to policy makers everywhere: ‘We can have a transformational impact on our education system and our economy, at no cost to the state or the undergraduates, but policymakers need to give us the flexibility to achieve this.’