Sir James Dyson has said tuition fees and student loans are saddling young people with huge debts at the “worst time” in their careers, holding them back from earning valuable qualifications.
Speaking ahead of the formal opening of his own institute of technology, which does not charge tuition fees,the designer and industrialist said the scale of loans and fees at English universities was increasingly likely to deter young people from studying at university.
“When tuition fees started, I don’t think anyone realised how big they would get – it ends up as £50,000 or £60,000,” he said. “Can you afford to go on and do a masters or a doctorate after that? And can you ever afford to repay it?
“It’s the worst time of life to have a debt. I thought having a mortgage was a terrible debt, but now they can’t even get to the mortgage point.”
The 33 undergraduates who start this month at the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology in Wiltshire are likely to finish their degree course debt-free, thanks to Dyson’s company paying their fees, and giving each student £15,000 a year.
The company received nearly 1,000 applications for the course, which it narrowed to a shortlist of less than 100 people, who were put through a rigorous series of interviews at the Dyson research park near Malmesbury, where building for the institute is under way.
Dyson, one of the most prominent business leaders to publicly support Brexit before the EU referendum, said he has no complaints about the quality of science and maths graduates from British universities, but there are not enough of them to fuel the growth of his company, which employs more than 3,000 qualified researchers and engineers worldwide.
Aside from student debt, Dyson said the negative public image of manufacturing and engineering in the UK also affects the recruitment of top students into science and technology courses.
“I think the fact that science subjects are seen as a difficult option might well deter them – they’re harder work,” he said. “Even Theresa May is attacking industrialists. It’s all bad news.”
Dyson was moved to launch the institute after being challenged by the universities minister, Jo Johnson, during a 2015 meeting at which Dyson complained about the shortage of highly skilled graduates in engineering and sciences.
Eighteen months and £22m of Dyson’s money later, the 33 students, who come from across the UK, have arrived. They were recruited based on their maths and science results – an A in A-level maths was a mandatory requirement – with some said to have turned down Oxbridge or Russell Group university places in favour of Dyson’s venture.
The course will include teaching from staff at the University of Warwick, which will be the degree-awarding body until the institute is granted powers to confer degrees by the Department for Education, a process that should take two years.
Matthew Wilson, a Dyson executive who was charged with designing the course, said the students will spend three days a week working alongside Dyson staff on active research projects and the other two days in lectures and seminars run by Warwick academics.
The students will live in rented, pre-assembled en suite pods on the site, allowing the institute to quickly expand as it adds students each year.
“The last thing I wanted to do was go and work in a factory – because I was told that is what would happen if you didn’t work hard at at school, you ended up in a factory,” said Dyson, the son of two teachers. “But it’s just not like that.
“If you look around here today, this is very different. We’re developing new products and new technology; solving problems. It’s exciting.”