James Dyson: 'I don't see why we need to chuck away foreign graduates'

Sir James Dyson tells Andy McSmith why he fears government plans to fill Britain's vacuum of science expertise will backfire
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Sir James Dyson, the man whose ingenuity means that you can vacuum a carpet without the machine losing suction as it fills, is practically incapable of saying a word against anyone.

But he is annoyed with the Chinese for nicking his designs and costing him vast sums in legal fees as he fights them in courts around the world; he is "disappointed" in his fellow boardroom knight, Sir Alan Sugar; and most potently, he has words of warning for his friends in the Coalition government that their desire to appear hard on immigration is driving out talented scientists and engineers.

Sir James complains that the Government's drive not to let jobs that could be done by British nationals be taken by immigrants is having a dire effect on postgraduate research.

"Eighty per cent of postgraduates and doctoral workers in science and technology come from overseas. Of 2,500 extra postgraduate posts created, only 50 went to British undergraduates," he said.

"The trend is appalling, and what makes it worse is that the Home Office is proposing to eject them if they don't have a job within two months of finishing their studies.

"What I'm told by universities is that is just going to put off those non-British people coming here, or it's going to encourage them to leave when they've finished, because they are so involved in their work that they haven't got time to go out and look for a job. Two months is not long enough. I don't see why we need to chuck out anyone who has a PhD in science."

Such an approach is indicative of a national state of mind, Sir James feels, that is broadly ignorant of the potential of engineering and technology. This was recently captured by Sir Alan Sugar on The Apprentice, he points out. Sir Alan, dismissing a contestant, said: "I have never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hands to business." That sort of comment, in Sir James's view, is unfair on engineers and bad for Britain.

Sir James bewailed that mentality when he recently presented his Ingenious Britain report to the Government, in which he called for a culture change that would reinstate engineering to the prestigious status it once had. "I suppose what disappointed me about that remark is that it's wrong. Here you have someone a lot of people listen to suggesting that engineers cannot run businesses," Sir James said, meeting at the Royal College of Art, in Kensington, where he is due to take over as provost.

"Manufacturing enterprise is about developing a better product, knowing how to make it, knowing how to tell people what it's good at and keeping the production line going. Engineers are really the only people qualified to do that. I don't think an accountant is, and I don't think a salesman is," he added.

He went on: "I take entirely the opposite view, that engineers are the best people to run businesses."

He is himself, of course, Britain's most conspicuous example of an engineer creating a thriving business from scratch, though when he started out he had to manoeuvre around the prejudices of bankers who did not want to back him unless he hired a manager experienced in the domestic appliance business. His view was that this field was badly managed and he could do better. He has proved his point by featuring at number 20 on the Sunday Times Rich List, with an estimated wealth of £1.45bn.

Is he really that rich? "It's a very difficult figure to calculate so I won't get into that," he said.

He did not start off as an engineer. He grew up in Norfolk, studied classics, then took a course at the RCA. It was while he was studying design that he was alerted to the importance of engineering. He now has a convert's zeal. He thinks that science and technology teachers in state schools should be better paid than those teaching the arts. "In business, if there is a shortage of people with the right qualifications, you have to pay more for them. People with science and maths degrees will find it easier to get a job outside teaching than those involved in the arts."

He also believes that graduates who stay on to do postgraduate research in science and technology should be paid a salary in the region of £40,000, compared with the £27,000 that the best paid are on now.

And the 64-year-old berates every government that he is old enough to remember, except the present one, for letting down manufacturing. "Successive governments here have given up on engineering and manufacturing," he said. "It's that belief that people in other countries can make things better which is so destructive to a nation's belief in itself.

"When it comes to come to big national infrastructure projects, France has done so well. France decided early on to develop nuclear power. They have made it work, and I believe they have made it safe.

"They did the same thing with their car industry and their aircraft industry and the same with high-speed trains. There you have successive governments who have seen the importance of engineering. The result is that France is better mechanised than we are, and engineers are the highest profession in France."

He does not attack the last Labour government but observes: "We thought we could rely on the City,on finance, on services, and there was no one to bang the drum for industry".

He is "very pleased" by the way the Government has reacted to his report. "I was going to say surprised," he added. "But in view of the enthusiasm of David Cameron, George Osborne and Vince Cable maybe I'm not surprised. I hope that enthusiasm will ripple down."

Life in brief

* James Dyson was born in Norfolk in 1947. He studied art at the Byam Shaw School in London, and at the Royal College of Art.

* While studying, he designed several inventions that went on to make millions, including a high-speed landing craft and the ballbarrow.

* He went through 5,127 prototypes to finally get to his revolutionary vacuum cleaner design, inspired by the cyclone system at a local sawmill.

* He developed his first "G-Force" cleaner in 1989, but it was rejected by the major manufacturers. It was eventually launched in Japan, wherethe new technology proved a mammoth success, enabling him to launch his own manufacturing company under his own name.

* Married to a teacher, Deirdre Hindmarsh, Dyson now commands an engineering empire worth £2.7bn.