How to build bridges – and apply yourself

Seventy-five kilos. No, that is not what I weigh (I wish!) but the amount of weight that Cost Centre #2 was informed that the structure he was about to build must bear. He was in a lecture theatre at Newcastle University, with five people he had never clapped eyes on before and a pile of aluminium strips.

CC#2 had won a place on Headstart, a scheme for 17-year-olds that sends them off to a university for five days so they can experience what it is like to study engineering and science. These sessions are held all over the country, and just as in the real university application process, you can specify where you would like to attend. And, also just like the real thing, you don’t always get your first choice. CC#2 hadn’t especially wanted to go that far up the country – even though Newcastle is my alma mater – not least because he feared he would have to stand on the train all the way there. He did have to stand, but he did enjoy his five days masquerading as an undergraduate.

We are gearing up for CC#2’s university application procedure, which kicks off in September. He is also applying to US universities and has already done one set of SATs, which, for some reason, in the UK is an exam that starts at 7.30am on a Saturday. What is mind-boggling to me, though, is the industry that has grown up to advise on the process. I paid £600 for an initial assessment of CC#2’s chances of getting into a US college, and could be paying a further £4,500 to have someone assist with his application. My girlfriends tell me that is nothing, and that they have paid £7,500 or more to make sure their offspring land up in the right Ivy League establishment. Really? I am sorry, but I can think of many better ways of spending £7,500.

However much I end up handing over, CC#2 assures me that he is worth it. He wants to study mechanical and aeronautical engineering, and watching my hat blow off at Ascot he assured me that his first undergraduate project would be to design me a windproof piece of headgear. But that is not the only reason that I believe it helpful to make engineering an attractive study option. It is part of what makes Britain great, as the prime minister mentioned when he addressed the Conservative Party summer ball on July 2, citing stats to show how many of the world’s aeroplanes are powered by a British-designed engine.

I was pleased to hear this endorsement, as I was a guest that night of a successful British industrialist, a rare breed these days and one that does not get nearly enough credit. It is always an honour to be included in such a prestigious event when you know that your host has created the wealth that paid for the table through his own hard work, and that his success helps to power the economy beyond central London. And I am encouraged to learn that two of his four cost centres attended Oxbridge, without the need for any £7,500 bill to help them apply.

CC#2’s five days in Newcastle included a visit to Sir Robert McAlpine to see how engineering works in practice, a speed-dating session with five engineers to ask them about their careers, and a civil engineering class where he and his group were issued with spaghetti and a glue gun and told to build a bridge. I can only hope he is better with glue than me. At a recent event in the City, a FTSE 100 chairman (and knight of the realm) came up to greet me, peered into my eyes and asked accusingly, “are those false eyelashes?” I admitted they were (though only to satisfy the beautifying demands of filming for TV) and, to show him how they had been affixed individually, removed one. This seemed to horrify him.

Back in Newcastle, CC#2 and his team won the prize for estimating most closely what their structure would bear. They had guessed 80kg. What would it collapse at? Fifty kg. Not too bad, but it wouldn’t carry his mother.

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