Dearing disses Dragons' Den of university heads

April 10, 2008

Outlandish ideas and pithy put-downs were in short supply when BBC TV favourite Dragons' Den got a higher education makeover at the Higher Education Funding Council for England's annual conference.

The event saw the dragons - otherwise known as delegates - passing judgment on five pitchers, each with five minutes to outline an idea that would unlock the potential of higher education. The pitchers included Lord Dearing and Sir Martin Harris, while the dragons were not fire-breathing beasts or wealthy tycoons, but a "who's who" of vice-chancellors.

In an afternoon slot preceded by a tea break and buffet of cakes, the closest anyone came to breathing fire was when Lord Dearing cheerily told a dragon who suggested that his idea was old hat to "bugger off".

The ideas too weren't as wild or wacky as fans have grown to expect of the original Dragons' Den, where plucky inventors vie for investment from a panel of millionaires.

A spirited 77 years of age, Lord Dearing proved the most energetic of the lot, championing the importance of teaching entrepreneurship and transferable skills within and alongside traditional academic disciplines.

Of the accusation that this was nothing new, he countered: "Henry Royce, engineer of the Rolls-Royce partnership, said that he never invented anything. He just made what there was excellent."

Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, faced a similar charge from the dragons when he suggested that dedicated funding was needed to help universities raise the aspirations of school children.

One suggested that such a resource already exists in the form of schoolteachers, while another said that raising aspiration was pointless without raising attainment too.

However, the winning idea came from Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, who took top spot after risking the dragons' wrath by reacting to the news that 70 per cent of conference delegates were men with a pointed: "Surprise, surprise."

She asked for a notional investment of £60,000 for a pilot project to improve student engagement, arguing: "Students are at the heart of institutions and we're asking you to give us the key to unlock the potential."

Three quarters of the dragons said they would theoretically invest in that idea, and the key was hers.

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