Scrap architecture degrees and revitalise the profession

Improve professional standards by scrapping Part 1 and opening post graduate study and professional training to other disciplines, argues Mark Middleton

Professional bodies have spent a long time debating the future of architectural education in the UK, but I believe they haven’t delivered something that is new or workable. Fundamentally, the profession has a duty to support and encourage the next generation of architects. Firms up and down the country pull their weight when it comes to supporting the existing system, and this includes bursary schemes, professional practice training, tutoring, critiquing and lecturing. This is defensible if there is reciprocity and the profession gets what it needs from the universities, but unfortunately it doesn’t. There is a strong sense of a failing system, starving the profession of a future generation of properly trained, socially and ethnically diverse architects.

Architectural education is overly long and too expensive. Even though there are good schools out there, some aren’t preparing their students for practice adequately. The burden of technical and professional training is increasingly being dumped at the door of practices, and this is primarily because there are too many students to teach, and issues with how they are taught. Academia has seemingly become less interested in teaching the science of architecture during the past 10 years and has become myopically in thrall to its art and style.

At its worst, the teaching in some universities predicates singular endeavour over collaboration, encouraging students into quasi-monkish introspection

At its worst, the teaching in some universities predicates singular endeavour over collaboration, encouraging students into quasi-monkish introspection. They are relentlessly encouraged to express elaborately impossible visions, resulting in end of year shows that are full of schemes, not buildings, where visual complexity masks conceptual thinness. From the outside, many schools and units have increasingly become cults, led by an elite band of stylistic dictators who concentrate on aggressively grafting their own brand of design orthodoxy onto students. This educational despotism succeeds in creating a disconnected echo chamber which has students designing for students, and year-on-year separates what the students learn from what architects actually do.

The consequences of funding changes are well documented, and aside from the burden of debt, the biggest and most damaging implication is the creation of a de facto social apartheid within the profession. Children of C2DE families find it very difficult to study architecture, and as a bricklayer’s son who received a full student grant during the death throes of local authority support during the Thatcher years, I find this very personal. The threat of six figure loans back then would have meant that I would never have been able to study architecture. In the future it will be much easier for ABC1 children to get the support they need to enter the profession, improving social and ethnic diversity.  In this context, initiatives like the London School of Architecture have become important. The attempt to bring affordability and practical experience to the Part 2 course is laudable, and viewed at close quarters it has managed to make the final two years of architecture relevant, interesting and more importantly financially within reach for a wider circle of students. 

We have to accept that architecture is now considered more as a general humanities and arts degree; for nearly half of students it is a stepping stone to anything but architecture

Architecture has become devalued as a degree. The RIBA’s education survey shows that between 2010 and 2015, on average only 56% of students entering Part 1 returned to their architectural education four years later. We have to accept that architecture is now considered more as a general humanities and arts degree; for nearly half of students it is a stepping stone to anything but architecture. This places pressure on educational resources with some schools having 100 first years being taught by part-time heads and the odd visiting expert. This situation is untenable and bad for the profession’s future.

Every educational debate seems to focus on Part 2 and practical experience. We have to look at this in a different way and be more radical. Given the startling attrition rates between Parts 1 and 2, why don’t we consider dropping architecture as an undergraduate degree entirely and teach architecture as a post graduate degree, with two years practical training afterwards?

This move would reverse the trend.  Instead of seeding to other industries, architecture could attract the brightest and best students from other fields. The profession would have fewer students, who would be better educated, have more maturity and would be certain that architecture is their chosen career path. Fewer places would also mean greater competition and a higher standard and level of commitment to the study of architecture. Instead of spreading our scarce teaching and practice resources over 11,000 students over five years, we could concentrate on 2,400 candidates over two years in an accelerated and condensed curriculum. Lastly, the different disciplines they would bring to architectural study could re-energise our profession, which is currently viewing its future through many disparate lenses.

We all have to acknowledge that the triple threat of educational despotism, debt and devaluation and the corrosive effect it is having on the future of our profession. Unless we are bold, architects’ glacial move from the bright centre to the cold edges of the built environment universe will inexorably continue.

Postscript:

Mark Middleton is a partner at Grimshaw

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