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a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Tough Times

RIBA Library, Portland Place, London. Photo: Nick Garrod

Tomorrow afternoon, the Education team of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) will be contacting thirty students of architecture who have been selected to attend the following event:

Tough Times RIBA Student Forum
Tuesday 21 June: 18.00-21.00 at RIBA, London

Establishing a shared understanding of how the architectural community can best support architecture students in tough times. 

This unique forum is open to students from UK schools of architecture. It will be chaired by Niall McLaughlin and give you the chance to share your thoughts with RIBA staff, practitioners and students from other schools. 

You will hear about some of RIBA’s recent initiatives and have the opportunity to:

• Help consider future policies to improve pay and conditions in practice
• Debate employment options and alternative career paths for graduates
• Discuss how to survive architectural education in a new era of university financing 

The forum is open to thirty students, ideally representing a range of architecture schools and students at different stages of study. As capacity is limited, at this stage we cannot promise a place to every applicant. If you secure a place we will reimburse UK travel expenses (second class, advance booking on set tickets). 

The forum was promoted on RIBA Education’s Facebook stream earlier this month and was covered briefly in Friday’s Building Design. The subsequent “conversation” amongst online readers of the article (of varying shades of anonymity) reveals some of the usual perspectives on the relationship between the RIBA and architectural education today.

“Why should firms contribute to UK architectural education if it is no use to practices?”

“The future of a the profession and of the lives of all of its members requires a sense of SHARED responsibility. These young architects are the FUTURE of our profession – something that all of us surely want to INVEST in.”

“It appears to me (a 26 year old currently studying for part 3) that the current process of obtaining an architectural education is woefully removed from the wants and needs of modern architectural practice.”

“Let’s hope that the selection considers students from at least ALL the UK schools of architecture and not just the usual ones.”

For my part, I’ve emailed the RIBA with an expression of interest, and I fully expect not to be invited. I may be (as far as I know) the only person in the UK writing a PhD on architectural education at the moment, but I expect the RIBA to prioritise the very limited number of just thirty places to just students on taught courses. The attitude of the RIBA towards students of architecture – both through the validation procedures that accredit UK schools of architecture every four years, and events such as these – is that traditional architectural practice in a commercial environment is the principle aspiration for everyone. And yet anecdotal evidence and fag packet calculations of recent RIBA statistics would suggest that as many as two thirds of all students who commence RIBA Part I (undergraduate) studies in architecture never complete Part III (professional examination that follows the postgraduate degree or diploma and a minimum period post practice-based experience).

While it is a recurring feature of architectural education to call for its reinvention, the difference between previous upheavals and those of today is that they’re now out of the control of the profession or academe.

Architecture has always been expensive to study. Now, however, the stable little ecosystem of five years in university and two years in practice has been received a blinding broadside by the sudden reality of £9,000 p.a. tuition fees. While the interface between academe and profession adapted begrudgingly when the Labour government first introduced tuition fees, the disrespect between the two has suddenly been brought into sharp relief.

Whereas foundation level doctors in the UK (who will by the end of their education have spent the same amount of time at university as architects) earn a starting salary of between £22,000 and almost £28,000, a Part I graduate (after three years of study) is lucky to earn £20,000 (graduating in 2004, I started on £10,000 pre-tax). After Part III, an architect can expect £30,000 – £34,000, whereas a newly qualified GP can start on a salary of well over £50,000. If a medical student chooses to train as a consultant, they can expect to earn in excess of £70,000. (Sources: RIBA and NHS)

While few architects save lives in their day to day line of business, because of the RIBA Validation criteria and the established system of architectural education in this country, both they and doctors have to spend lengthy periods at university. And now that a three year degree at pretty much every self respecting university costs £27,000 before living and ancillary costs, the maths doesn’t add up for architecture.

As those selected comments on the BD article above show, students are reluctant to spend such a huge sum of money without better employment prospects or remuneration, and employers are reluctant to pay their graduates more without education becoming demonstrably more vocational. A stubborn rump of practicing architects expect graduates to be ready for professional practice, even though as little as one third of graduates ever take up a career in the profession.

Neither the RIBA, nor the schools of architecture, nor the profession itself, can do anything to reverse the Conservative-led government’s decision to charge (and the Liberal Democrat’s failure to obstruct) university tuition fees of £9,000 per annum. It is, therefore, up to practitioners, educators and the RIBA to negotiate a future for architectural education and practice.

The RIBA are to be congratulated for the apparently genuine intent to see a diversity of students represented at the forthcoming Tough Times forum. Reimbursing travel costs is also to be commended, especially for those students selected to represent schools far from London. However, given the RIBA’s diversity of spacious venues, it’s regrettable that only a small number of students can attend. While I appreciate the venues are commercially available to others and are likely booked up, it’s a shame that the strategic decision wasn’t taken to open the event to a wider number of delegates. If RIBA funds are too tight to reimburse all attendees, then some students, like myself or those studying in London, could have attended without necessarily claiming travel costs. Thirty travel bursaries could then have been provided for those in genuine financial need.

I hope to see you at Tough Times. But then I doubt I’ll be invited.

Postscript, 24 hours later: I’ve been invited to attend. Egg, face, etc.

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