Vacuum cleaner man James Dyson talks about his school for young engineers
“When I was at school I was told: ‘If you don’t work harder, you’ll end up in a factory.’ Well, I have and I love it.” This is a favourite anecdote of James Dyson, who gave the world the bagless vacuum cleaner and numerous other practical inventions.
Not just an inventor, engineer and manufacturer, Dyson has become an ardent evangelist for this most unalluring of careers. This week he launched his most ambitious charitable project to date – a glorified sixth-form college for design, innovation and engineering, which will open in 2008. He will contribute £12.5m through his own charitable trust, the James Dyson Foundation, to the £22m college in Bath. Among other charitable donors will be the Happold Trust, set up by engineer Buro Happold, which is based locally.
“Culturally, we now despise engineering in a sort of inverse snobbery,” says Dyson. He cites figures showing that China and India produce up to 19 times as many engineering graduates as the UK.
“If we don’t want that product label saying ‘Made in China’ to change to ‘Designed and made in China’, we’ve got to get a lot cleverer. We need to start with education and we need to form the next generation of designers and engineers.”
If we don’t want all the labels to say ‘Designed and made in China’, we’ve got to get a lot cleverer
Hence the new college, which has been christened the Dyson School of Design Innovation. Its core subject will be engineering, but Dyson admits that the word was dropped from the title because of its stigma. As one of 23 “skills academies” in vocational training set up under a government white paper published last year, it has been recognised as the UK’s first National Centre of Excellence for design, engineering and enterprise. It is planned to teach some 2500 16-18 year olds for a new diploma in design engineering, which should be recognised as an entrance qualification for university. The college also aims to catch them young, by teaching 14-16 year olds for one day a week.
If Dyson’s mission is to make engineering cool again, he cuts the perfect figure for doing so. Tall, lithe and aged 59, he has short-cropped grey hair, blue eyes, bold features and a ready smile. He wears a tight-fitting pullover and pants in matching navy blue with Converse trainers in black and white.
Though he claims not to be in competition with existing courses in technology, he criticises them for becoming “more and more written and less and less practical”. He goes on: “But you can only really learn from mistakes. If something breaks, you can learn from it.” With this in mind, students will be encouraged to put engineering products to the test.
“We want to show how exciting engineering can be,” he says.