GIVING STUDENTS SOMETHING BACK
It's about time architecture students had some good news.
So here it is: there's a goldmine of hard cash out there just waiting to be shovelled into your threadbare wallet.
Obviously it is not quite that simple and, at least initially, it will only be available if you are studying in the North West.
However, if a new pilot scheme is successful, wannabe architects across the country might find the burden of student debt eased considerably.
In theory, the all-new Academic Allowance initiative could effectively double the pound-for-pound 'earnings' of Part 2 students while they are gaining their requisite in-practice experience.
The exact details have yet to be ironed out, but if a student's learning 'benefits' the practice, he or she could earn up to £15,000 over the academic year - without losing any of it to the Inland Revenue.
Not only will the student avoid National Insurance and income tax, but the practice funding its student-cumemployee will be able to set this amount off against its corporation tax liabilities.
A further tax-free lump sum of £3,000, payable from the practice, can also be snafed up by the student to cover tuition fees.
The notion of tax breaks for businesses wanting to help employees/students is not new.
The concept of the new scheme originated in the minutiae of Chancellor Gordon Brown's previous budget, but the link to the architectural world was not initially picked up.
Indeed, if the scheme is a success it will, in the main, be down to the lateral thinking of John Hickey, the education chair for RIBA North West.
Hickey first became aware of the financial plight of architectural students two years ago, following a presentation by student body Archaos. The group revealed figures showing the average debt of architecture students reaching £35,000 by the time of qualifying.
Today that sum is nearer to £40,000 and, with the rejection of a cap on top-up fees, the mountain of debt facing new architects can only increase.
Hickey was spurred on by a remark from a Treasury minister about tax-efficient ways of involving businesses with education. In his words, he 'started to dig around'.
He discovered tax breaks were available for businesses which sent employees on full-time educational courses, and the Chancellor then announced a £15,000 tax-free golden handshake.
Unsurprisingly the idea has been seized upon by Liverpool's architecture schools and Manchester School of Architecture (MSA). It has also got the much-needed backing of the RIBA's vice-president for education, Simon Allford, and president Jack Pringle, who ensured the funds were available to research the practicality and delivery of the scheme.
And the initiative already has the Inland Revenue's authority to proceed 'provided the guidelines are observed'.
Hickey said: 'Tax and National Insurance can amount to 45 per cent of your gross earnings.
'This has got to make a real difference and could go a long way to resolving the problem of student debt.'
He added: 'I'm pretty sure one way or another we will see this in place.'
While the initiative will work out as cost-neutral for the architectural firms, the benefits of keeping a student for an extended period are obvious.
Naturally there are 'all sorts of rules and regulations' and if the amounts paid to the student exceed £15,000, the tax advantages could be withdrawn.
The scheme also raises questions about how loyal students will have to be towards practices which have paid their allowance - though some sources reckon the initiative could mean the end for the classic sponsorship arrangement.
Yet for students turning to more exible approaches to Part 2, such as MSA's new course where 'learning' is encouraged while working in practice, the prototype allowance scheme will become increasingly valuable.
MSA's head of schools David Dernie - the first to pilot the initiative - said: 'In effect we are delivering a course which meets the Inland Revenue's definition of a full-time course of 20 hours per week.
'We will need agreements with practices on how best to integrate students, but we're thinking beyond the old models.
Anything new needs a sound economic basis - and we already have this.'
The MSA students who opt to combine three years of study with employment are going to be better off than students who take a year out before returning for another two years in school.
Dernie said: 'Students at these schools could run up another £15,000 of debt over the two years.
'The difference between this, and a student under [the new] system who is getting paid more than their living costs, is huge.'
He added: '[What's more], practices will see this initiative as opening a new door - at the moment they are gagging for students and this will certainly help.'
It is understood that Manchester-based firms Stephenson Bell, MBLC and Downs Variava are already interested in the initiative, which could be rolled out as early as January 2007.
It just goes to show that everyone loves to take from the tax man - and broke students will be no different.