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Small firms slam student debt plans

Small practices have poured cold water on the government's suggestion that employers should step in to relieve the funding crisis facing architectural education.

Smaller offices have reacted with horror to the proposal - contained in the Higher Education White Paper (AJ 30.1.03) - that practices should pay off the student debts of their newly qualified employees. They have warned they would be unable to shoulder the costs that students are set to incur with the introduction of top-up-fees - estimated at £35,000 by the RIBA.

The idea - an extension of plans for the public sector to cover the debts of public sector workers - is unlikely to be legally binding.

However, the White Paper states that the government 'expects' that firms will take it on-board voluntarily.

William Assheton of small Kettering-based practice GSS Architecture described the proposal as 'loopy'. 'I am absolutely certain little practices could not do this, ' he told the AJ.

'The government is clearly ignorant about the amount of money practices make and how much they pay themselves.

'This will not help students to become useful members of the profession, ' he added.

And London-based Dunthorne Parker echoed these comments. Partner George Pace agreed there was 'no way' his firm could afford it.

'There is already an inertia about taking students on, ' he said. 'Anything that assists this would be damaging for the profession. There is already a lot of foreign recruitment and I can only see this idea increasing it.'

The RIBA's head of government affairs, Jonathan Labrey, who was also worried, said the institute planned to discuss the issue with schools minister David Milliband.

'This will present many problems for the smaller firms that make up such a large part of the profession, ' Labrey said. 'The expense for these practices will be something they cannot afford.'

'But we do need to look at the way the profession can help to pay for education in the schools, ' he added.

However, some of the country's larger practices were more receptive to the idea, stressing this might be the only way to ensure they recruit 'the best students'.

Scott Brownrigg + Turner director Steve Merriott confirmed that his practice would certainly consider 'sponsoring students for some of their courses'.

HOK International's head of human resources Liz Sutton agreed. 'We do not repay student debts at the current time, ' she said. 'But if such proposals reached the statute books, we would consider these options for continuing to attract the best architectural talent from schools and colleges.'

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