Engineering our way to degree awarding powers

The Dyson Institute is the first new provider to be granted degree awarding powers by the Office for Students. Director Matt Wilson reflects on a three year journey.

Late last year, David Kernohan asked where the new providers were.

You will likely recall that one of the key ambitions of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was to usher in a new wave of challenger institutions. One of the provisions to support this was for new providers to be granted degree awarding powers on the basis of future plans – backed up, of course, by the necessary resources.

Three years on, The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology is the first truly new provider to be granted new Degree Awarding Powers (NDAP). Why should the sector care about this milestone? And what has the NDAPs experience taught us?

Higher education the Dyson way

I joined Dyson over twenty years ago as a graduate engineer and have spent my career working on some of the advanced technologies that power our machines. Solving intractable problems and finding new and better ways to do things is what makes me tick. So when the opportunity arose to turn my hand to engineering a new HE institution, I couldn’t turn it down.

The Dyson Institute has been working in close partnership with WMG, University of Warwick for a few years now; we welcomed our fourth cohort onto the WMG-delivered and awarded BEng degree apprenticeship this month. None of our undergraduate engineers pay fees: they work in Dyson Technology and are paid a salary. Everything is delivered on the Dyson Technology Campus in Malmesbury, where undergraduates study for two days a week and work for three. Alongside the integrated programme of work and study where our undergraduates work on real-world problems, the focus is on professional development and proactive, tailored support.

The plan for our future is to draw on what we’ve learned so far to create the best possible engineering education experience and to deliver it independently. In the engineering world, we talk about iteration – the cyclical process of design, building, testing and refining. It’s a concept that easily transfers to learning and teaching, and the student experience in higher education. Just as with Dyson products, we are passionate about innovation and continuous improvement, ensuring that everything we do is the best it can be.

In the sector we’re unusual. We are very small for a start, with an intake of up to 50 each year – currently 150 in total. We have undergraduate engineers, but they’re also employees, contributing to real products in real engineering teams. We’re not trying to mimic traditional higher education institutions, but we do want to learn from the sector and contribute to it.

HERA told us that the sector was ready for innovators like us. But the reality has been more complex.

The long-ish winding road

There has to be a high bar to entry for new higher education providers, and especially for DAPs. The stakes are too high. At the sector level, we need to have confidence in award standards. For undergraduates, the cost of wasting time at an unprepared, low-quality institution could be disastrous.

The NDAPs process is rigorous, but could be better focused to promote innovation rather than assume that all models or approaches should be like those already operating in the sector. The outcomes-based assessment model promoted in OfS’ Regulatory Framework is exactly the right approach – but it needs some fine-tuning to really work in practice for unusual models.

A more fundamental issue is the difficulty of finding useful information. While HERA and the Regulatory Framework offer the bones, the information that’s really needed is spread across a plethora of documents and websites and owned by a variety of organisations. Moreover, when you’re a privately-owned, small, niche provider, guidance that looks essential on the face of it can often turn out not to apply, or to apply to a different extent. You sign up to a discussion about Access and Participation, only to realise that everyone else is there to talk about Plans, and you’re the only one with a Statement. You attend events about governance where everyone speaks very knowingly about their innumerable committees and sub-committees, which you’ll simply never have in your 200-student, single programme institution.

Finding the useful information, and sidestepping the irrelevant, is a minefield.

And of course, there’s the investment. How can you prove, for example, that you’ll have an effective academic community when you don’t yet have an academic team? That you’ll have an appropriate Learning Management System, or Student Information System, or Library, if none of those things exist yet? The simple answer is that it’s very hard, and so you don’t.

When you’re engineering a new product, you focus on proof of concept before committing to significant expenditure, using concept exploration, early stage research and prototyping to demonstrate the viability of the product. When it comes to NDAPs, the line for assessment is drawn too closely to a fully realised provider. Plans for key infrastructure and resource – however credible – are not enough.

And so, instead of promising future investment, you must make substantial initial investment without any certainty of success. You bring in academic staff on the promise that, at some uncertain point, they will be able to teach actual students. You purchase expensive systems with no intention of using them in the immediate term.

We are fortunate that The Dyson Institute is seen as part of Dyson’s long-established philanthropic mission to address the shortage of engineers, and that James Dyson is willing to underpin this commitment to engineering education with significant financial support (an investment of £31.5 million in The Dyson Institute to date). But for many new providers, the required upfront investment will be too much to ask.

It has been a challenging journey to secure our new powers – but being first is always challenging. As part of Dyson, we’re used to that. We’re pleased to have been able to break new ground, and are grateful to colleagues at the QAA and the Office for Students for the guidance they gave us through the process which was, after all, new to them as well as to us.

What’s next?

It is likely, and right, that the NDAPs bar will remain high. That’s a good thing – the gold standard of UK higher education must be preserved. But there is room for approaches which more actively encourage new entrants and support them to demonstrate their commitment to quality and standards while also embracing their innovation. I’m confident that there is plenty of room for new providers, and I’m convinced that the sector will be the richer for embracing them.

Outside of NDAPs, there’s also plenty of space for innovative collaborations between academia and industry, that offer increased student choice in a different way. Our partnership with WMG, University of Warwick, who worked closely with us to develop our pioneering model, is testament to that.

At The Dyson Institute, we’re committed to the sector for the long haul and we’re confident that we can make a significant contribution – not just to our students, and to our discipline – but to the whole community. We look forward to being an active contributor.

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