If there’s one thing that my study of architectural education has established, it’s that it’s all about the money. As a fully funded postgraduate research student, I’m in the privileged position of not having to deal with juggling the cost of my course and the cost of living, although before you hurl abuse I do have a five figure student loan to repay.
For me, studying from 2001 to 2008 meant watching my tuition fees rise from about £1,000 to £1,500 a year. According to a number ill-informed protestors, scandalised tabloid journalists and newly-reformed Trotskyite Labour politicians, the funding package announced by the coalition government this week means every student on every course at every university will soon be paying £9,000 a year to study, implying that an architecture graduate will face a tuition bill of £45,000 (plus interest).
The £9,000 figure has morphed into a rallying cry, as if that’s what every 18 year old is going to have to stump up to go to university next September. There has been a complete failure of communication on the part of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and (by association, because they generally repeat what those fine folks are saying) the British media. The university funding package allows universities to set tuition fees as high as £9,000, not universally at £9,000. Explaining this to student protestors seems to be a waste of time, especially as recent violence on the streets of London is now morphing into an amorphous riot of pent up aggression against everyone who might be to blame for our country’s ramshackle economy: the Tories, the Lib Dems, and (in a bizarre acquisition of the UK Uncut campaign) Philip Green.
Well performing, well resourced and high ranking members of the Russell Group may indeed be able to charge £27,000 for some three year courses, but many others will not.
Furthermore, unlike the current system, fees will be collected once the graduate starts earning £21,000 per annum – that threshold is £6,000 higher than the current insanely low income threshold of £15,000, at which point I myself started to re-pay my own student loans. Bewildered Liberal Democrats, such as Paddy Ashdown in this clip, have been amazed by the breadth of public misunderstanding on this simple fact. Fees will rise, but they will not be collected until the graduate is earning a much higher income, and repayments will be proportional to that income. The Labour Party blindly insists it would introduce a graduate tax to pay for university education, but as we’ve learned from the increasingly untenable financial state of the Scottish university system, that simply isn’t viable. As soon as a recession bites, the brain drain of graduates going to work abroad means you lose that tax income.
The issue of university tuition fees is particularly acute in architectural education, because to become a fully qualified architect in the UK, you have no alternative but to pass five years at university. By locking on to a headline figure of £9,000 per annum, potential architecture students in England are now weighing up the value of architectural education at £45,000 plus five years of living expenses. It’s not entirely fair, since I don’t expect every school to charge that much. Although as a barometer, don’t forget that the über-exclusive AA (a kind of private school for architects, outside the university system but aligned with the Open University for the purpose of conferring degrees) currently charges £16,173 per annum for its five year undergraduate programme and £25,305 for the sixteen month Masters of Architecture. I’m not going to stick my head out and tell you whether or not the AA provides an education that’s worth that much (if you know me, you will probably know my thoughts on that matter) but it can charge that much and it does, largely by being very good value for international students, who are charged grossly inflated fees for the privilege of studying at UK universities (but who still have to deal with the same under-investment in facilities, teaching, research etc.)
In the past three months, I’ve been traveling the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland to speak to academics and teachers at seventeen schools and universities about architectural education and live projects. Though the focus of my interests are the live projects themselves, the bigger picture of higher education is of importance to my study. Having met with academics in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, one thing appears to be universal: architectural education is in a dire financial situation. While every academic in every discipline is likely to complain about cuts in funding, teaching and resourcing, unlike any other discipline taught in the university, architecture is caught in a perfect storm. It feeds a professional body that insists on five years of study, it predominantly maintains a culture of one-to-one tuition in large studio spaces that are only used for one third of the year, and it underperforms in research funding and output relative to almost every other discipline in the academy.
Graduates are also entering a profession with little sympathy for their financial situation. The average salary across the whole profession in 2009 was £45,000 (pdf). The average salary of an architect under the age of 30 (and therefore likely to include most recent graduates) was £30,000. Personally, I’d be delighted to be earning £30,000 right now, but that figure is horrifying when you consider the length of time it takes to study and the cost already being borne to graduate in architecture. Architecture is one of the longest courses in the university, but the starting and average lifetime salaries of architects do not reflect the cost. Next time you bump into a student of medicine (they’re some of the others who spend just as long at university to get professional accreditation), ask them what they expect to be earning at the age of 30.
The expectation that students should complete a three year degree and two year diploma or masters in order to become architects has been placed at the heart of British architectural profession for a number of decades. But it was put there by a population of architects who didn’t have to pay for their education. Since most of them were men, precious few took career breaks to start families before rejoining the profession. The profession is simply incapable of paying its graduates salaries that are proportional to the contemporary cost of education. It can’t even agree whether or not to condemn the despicable practice of employing unpaid graduates.
The route to architectural qualification through supervised practice or apprenticeship has long been extinct, and I do not argue for its renaissance. Recent experiments in practice-based diplomas and masters degrees in architecture at British universities have struggled, simply because when the work dries up, the possibility to complete your degree also dries up. But time and time again, I’m hearing the opinion being voiced that there should be some kind of alternative. I don’t know what that alternative is, but I do believe that architecture is in a unique position. Because of our ‘perfect storm’, we also have the opportunity to be the site of meaningful experiments in the nature of higher education.