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School's out over education

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With the tuition fees debate still echoing through the House of Commons, AJ asked a range of educationalists, commentators and practitioners for their views on the future of architectural education and the potential effects of top-up fees on students, schools and the profession.Interviews by Zoë Blackler

PROFESSOR JEREMY TILL HEAD OF SCHOOL, SHEFFIELD UNIVERSITY

Top-up fees mean all of us now have a duty of care towards our students.Which means, in part, restructuring education. What we have is an outdated and fixed structure that has been in place since 1887. And it hasn't been questioned, it's just been accepted.

Something has got to give. It's not a matter of changing the criteria, all that is just deckchairs on the Titanic.

The present structure does not take into account the new architectural and social conditions. It aims to produce a certain type of fixed architect. But the world has moved on, we need a different type of architect to face up to new fluid conditions. It is not as if every architect is going to design an art gallery or every architect is going to design extensions. It's a much more specialised field but the criteria for assessing it have become much more limited. You cannot teach all the knowledge required to be an architect. But you can teach people to develop judgement in order to face the new conditions.

Students face a new set of pressures, not least student debt, which means the viability of the compulsory five-year education is dubious. There's no way the present structure is tenable if the profession wants to keep recruiting. The Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 structure has to go. It will collapse under its own weight. If you want people to become architects who aren't middle-class kids, something's got to change.

I don't think the ARB has any right to be involved in the legislation of undergraduate education. The ARB's role is to ensure competency. But why is someone failing a third-year technology course a danger to the public? And why are we the only profession in the country that has that degree of micro management?

Instead, there should be a final gateway, controlled by a national exam. So the ARB would not legislate schools but examine.

Schools should be free to explore their own academic agendas and be able to move students towards that gateway or not - they should choose.

The profession doesn't own education and it has got to get over the expectation of schools producing oven-ready chickens. As educationalists we have a responsibility towards three sets of people: the funding councils, the students (increasingly, as they pay more) and the profession. But often the discussion is framed as only a duty to the profession, and it is not. It is not a gloomy scenario, it's a positive one. It's all good and it will make us rethink. But something has to give if we are to have the kind of profession worthy of us in 30 years' time.

JACK PRINGLE RIBA VICE-PRESIDENT FOR EDUCATION AND DIRECTOR OF PRINGLE BRANDON

With top-up fees, additional money will be going into universities, which is absolutely essential since funding per student has halved during the past 15 years.

At the RIBA, we are looking for schools not only to maintain academic standards but also to increase them. So this continually degrading funding base was becoming a serious problem. With more money for the universities to come, hopefully more will find its way to the architecture schools.

The next issue is how that money is raised.

I believe we have ended up with the secondbest system. The best would have been to raise the money through general taxation.

But it looks as if we are going to have a system where students borrow to pay their fees and pay back that debt over a number of years.

The high cost of both courses and living expenses has been climbing in any case, and increasing debt will be a major issue for architecture students. We already had a problem recruiting people from deprived and ethnic minority backgrounds and this can only make the problem worse.

The classic course structure is just not going to be normal in the future. People are likely to dip in and out of education as they take time out to repay debt. Schools need to be as flexible as they can in terms of access and pattern of completing courses. There may need to be more part-time courses. This is going to happen, and it must be a bad thing if it is being driven by debt. And if studying is going to be extended dramatically because of debt, then this will certainly put off people from poorer backgrounds - the very people we want to attract.

We need to go campaigning and persuading people to take up architecture. We do need to go out and talk to people from deprived and ethnic minority backgrounds about the advantages of coming in and why it is worth doing.We needed to do it anyway.

YASMIN SHARIFF ARB BOARD MEMBER, RIBA COUNCILLOR AND SENIOR LECTURER, THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTMINSTER

The threat is that architectural education is becoming so difficult that a lot of people are falling out of the system and taking more than seven years to qualify.

The problem is that the more vulnerable people are, the more you will get the fallout.

So women and ethnic minorities are usually first as part of that fallout. We need to stop this massive leakage.

Some students are taking 10 years or more to finish what should be a seven-year course.

And it's not right that we have a system that is taking people longer and longer to qualify.

The answer is to create a much more rigorous system, spelling out what is expected at each stage. And we need to simplify it.

While I believe there should be a high level of design, there also needs to be better legal and technical training and we need to give students the skills to navigate the planning system. If you don't know what the law is, you look pretty stupid in front of a client.

Students need that knowledge and the current system doesn't do them any favours.

I can't see any advantage of bringing in a part-time option, it will just extend education longer and longer. We have got to make sure people complete their education within the seven-year time limit.Why can't we - as doctors do - come in one end and out the other in a set time and have the basic skills and tools to do the job? It can't be that difficult.

The quality of the built environment, as recognised by the government now, is fundamental to the quality of our lives. If we are going to affect quality of life, we have got to get the profession in a better position to do that.

WENDY POTTS FORMER CHAIR OF SCHOSA

Top-up fees are probably not going to make a lot of difference to architecture. I doubt many would drop out since architecture is a good recruiter. Figures for the past four to five years have stayed pretty static. The only thing that has changed is that students have tended to stay up longer after the third year.

Partly because there's plenty of work around at the moment.

I think this is a time of settling in, rather than of change - putting in place those changes that have already happened. There's a lot of bedding down to do.

ALEX MACLAREN CO-CHAIR OF STUDENT PRESSURE GROUP ARCHAOS

I would hope to see a very different system in place in 10 years' time. Employers see the current system as failing because after three years in university, students are no more use to them than before they began. So I think we will see much greater links with practice, perhaps even to the point of a revival of the apprenticeship system, with more on-thejob learning. I think it would be more useful for students to have part-time university courses while working part-time in practice.

After the first three-year degree there would be a number of modules to complete and the speed at which you did them would be up to you. It would obviously involve practice becoming more involved and it would increase interest in research.

The first degree is very valuable and should remain. Since a lot of people graduate and then don't become architects it creates a knowledgeable client base and greater understanding of the discipline among non-architects.

The ARB should become more involved in making the qualification internationally relevant and making it as transferable as possible. There is now an international architectural student community and the RIBA should be forging better links with it.

Top-up fees will have an immediate and really devastating effect if the system we have now is still in place in 2006. It will mean only white, middle-class kids will study architecture. The system has to change before the introduction of top-up fees in 2006. Archaos will be pushing hard to get everyone to sit down and work it through. I am optimistic that there will be progress, and I know I have the support of students all over the country.

I would be depressed by the vote on topup fees if I didn't think it would lead to change. But in a way it's the kick up the arse we need to sort this out.

AUSTIN WILLIAMS AJ TECHNICAL EDITOR

For all the concern about accessibility, fun, inclusion, relevance, flexibility, self-esteem, cross-curricula development, training, potential, or personal fulfilment, the thing that always gets missed in a debate about (architectural) education is the defence of excellence.

Some people might whinge that this is too elitist. But the deprioritisation of knowledge for knowledge's sake is having a disastrous effect on general educational standards and a detrimental impact on abstract thinking, let alone the ability of many graduates to write coherently. Until recently, the argument was whether architecture was an art or a science;

nowadays students are being brought up to consider that it is simply a skill.

MAXWELL HUTCHINSON PAST-RIBA PRESIDENT, BROADCASTER AND PRACTITIONER

I think there could be a foundation course for school leavers before they commence architecture - rather than wasting a gap year getting drunk in Australia - similar to an art foundation. It could be just part-time but it would give a sense of what architecture is all about. A lot of students start without knowing what architecture is and end up dropping out after second or third year.

Some even make it to the end of the Part 2.

It's a waste of their money and the public's money. This would test whether students were likely to stay the course.

If top-up fees happen - and I think they will - inevitably there will be fewer schools of architecture and more specialisation. At present we have got a high number of schools compared with Europe, with six in Scotland alone. I think it is very sensible of Cambridge, for example, to decide just to continue with the Part 1 but not Part 2. Maybe some will even specialise in teaching overseas students.

In the young architects I hire, I see key bits of their knowledge missing. I always think of the parallel between Part 2 and a houseman in medicine. A houseman will be in charge of a ward full of people seriously ill, whereas after Part 2 many don't even know the dimensions of objects, commercial tables or the names of bits of a building. I would have thought a knowledge of the syntax of architecture is pretty elementary. I honestly believe the general public would be shocked to hear that they haven't got the elementary vocabulary.

We should be trying to attract more distinguished practitioners into the higher echelons of the architecture schools, into the professorships. And we should try to entice retired architects back into the teaching process. Those who teach now are often quite young and trying to set up in practice, while academia has always been a bolt-hole for architects short of work.

Under no circumstances should we reduce the length of the course. It takes that long to become an architect.When I was president of the RIBA at the start of the 1990s we fought a major judicial review when the government tried to reduce the course. Ken Clarke was secretary for education at the time. We took the government to the high court and we won.

PROFESSOR DAVID DUNSTER UNIVERSITY OF LIVERPOOL

Architecture schools are in a rough position.

The ARB is behaving like a manic prefect, the RIBA is doing its best to be an honest broker but not getting very far.

Schools are all trying desperately to teach the kind of architecture we no longer need; to produce the brass-plate architect demanded by the ARB.

Top-up fees are odious. I'm ashamed that the Labour government is bringing them in.

This government and previous ones have made it increasingly difficult for universities to operate. Top-up fees will exacerbate the concentration of fewer, larger schools, as the older universities open up their doors and let more in and fewer go to the younger universities. They will also have the effect of cutting out those from working-class backgrounds.

The next set of pressures will be to cut courses from five years to four. It's likely to be the least popular subjects that are dropped, like history and theory. But actually these are the subjects we need to re-examine how we teach, and, in fact, there should be less of structure and technology.

Teachers can't teach this as well as an office can teach it. You can learn much more from just six months in a practice.

More schools should try to get into the feasibility study game and into regeneration.

More should be done to get these subjects taught within architecture departments. It's crazy to have regeneration done by people who can't read plans.

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