Architectural education faces a series of important challenges, says Christine Murray
Among the student protesters that enlivened Westminster last week was a Bartlett student that stormed the Tory HQ to protect architecture from becoming ‘the preserve of the rich’.
‘Direct action was necessary’ said the student, who claimed the rate of debt incurred by £9,000 tuition fees, coupled with the ‘low rate of pay for architects’, would make studying to be an architect ‘very indulgent’.
Would a drop in architecture graduates be a bad thing? Qualified architects may welcome the news of a more exclusive profession given the mass of surplus talent that’s been drifting around since the recession. Architecture schools are oversubscribed – some by a factor of six – and students have been struggling for placements: we’ve had several complete work experience at the AJ after failing to find work in practice. Too many graduates arguably devalue qualification.
But the Bartlett student in question has a point: making architecture (even more of) an elitist profession through a tuition hike would ultimately result in a less diverse, and therefore less vibrant, adaptable and relevant workforce.
The profession has long been persistent in its monoculture. There may be a high intake of foreign students at UK architecture schools, but higher tuition fees for visiting students mean those who study here are wealthy too. And the profession does not reflect the multiculturalism in the classroom. Last year, 92 per cent of architects in practice described themselves as being ‘white’, according to statistics from The Fees Bureau.
The Stephen Lawrence Trust has worked to promote students from socially excluded and black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Its Architecture for Everyone (A4E) campaign was founded on the belief that ‘built environment professionals who reflect the diversity of the society they serve have a better chance of creating a built environment that suits society’. In other words, practices should reflect their clientele, and if your practice is building social housing, mixed-use schemes, supermarkets, hospitals, Olympic amenities or even power stations, a mixed-up team should be a must.
Tuition fee hikes are only one of several issues facing architectural education. There is the quandary of whether to combine Part 2 and Part 3 courses, an old but crucial argument since Part 2-equivalent graduates from Europe may call themselves architects, while UK graduates are beholden to Part 3. A combined Part 2 and 3 would also lower the financial burden for students, and a shorter course could help promote equality – the length of study has been accused of hobbling female architects keen to have a family. It is very difficult to reach a 50/50 by 2020 target of women in architecture without more female graduates – so far, they only number 38 per cent.
With more student protests threatened for 24 November, with activists calling for a day of disruption ‘on a national scale’, it seems an apt moment to consider a revolution in architectural education. Where do you stand?