Insisting students are paid minimum wage is an important marker of change says RIBA president Ruth Reed; while Keith Tomlinson says the institute should have gone further
The introduction of the requirement for students to be paid at least the national minimum wage by RIBA Chartered Practices for all work noted on the Professional Education and Development Record is timely, given the potential crisis in architectural education.
The trebling of course fees at the same time as the economic downturn has severely reduced practice workloads and also threatens to cut off the education of a generation of talented designers. To protect the future of the profession, it is imperative to safeguard the income of those least able to negotiate a position in the workplace and sustain a living.
Best practice in employment already exists across the profession in large and small firms, but the actions of a few in exploiting student labour create an unequal environment for fee bidding.
The minimum wage is not enough to make architectural education economically viable, but it is a marker of a change in the culture of a profession that at the best of times can give away its skills and in times of economic hardship increasingly uses the unpaid labour of its graduates to maintain unsustainable business practices.
This is the beginning of work to define acceptable levels of pay within the profession. The immediate imposition of a more onerous requirement would not have allowed businesses to adapt to the new pay and conditions culture in a sustainable way. This step on the way signals the change and empowers students to ask for a minimum recompense for their skills and labour.
Following a year of campaigning by BD and Architects Against Low Pay, the RIBA’s decision to stop passively endorsing low pay/ no pay is a very welcome small step forward. So, problem solved? I don’t think so.
Earning the national minimum wage seems a paltry reward for seven years’ study and practical training, and it is hardly a ringing endorsement of the value of an architectural education which is controlled and validated by the RIBA.
Tough times offer no excuse for our professional, subscription-funded institute not to exercise courage and moral authority. It would be perfectly possible to make fair wages (above minimum wage) part of the conditions of RIBA-chartered membership. Those practices that wish to exploit can do so outside the tent by relinquishing RIBA status. I doubt many would. Potential difficulties with enforcement are no reason not to try and improve conditions.
Britain remains one of very few countries that offer no protection of function for architects. Protection of title is of very little value when we are competing against the unqualified and uninsured, especially in a tough marketplace. Since the 1980s, the RIBA has allowed our value to be undermined. Small wonder we are in this condition now!
My hope is that the RIBA can become more relevant to the needs of architects, like the Architektenkammers in Germany. Resigning my membership was a sad thing to do, but I have few regrets.
What do you think?