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Teaching old dogs new tricks

Tutors are climbing down from their ivory towers into the real world in an attempt to make courses more relevant

Teaching staff at Kingston University are being encouraged to take two- week sabbaticals in architects'practices to get them to appreciate what life is like in the 'real world'. The purpose of this venture is twofold. Firstly, to enable architectural tutors who have grown rusty to have a refresher course, and secondly, to give them a more practical (or relevant) edge to the way they teach their students.

Undoubtedly, practices which have had to deal with professionally naive Part 2 students who are not even sure what a reflected ceiling plan is, let alone able to draw one, will rub their hands with glee.

They will probably also be smirking at the prospect of some corduroy-clad, goateebearded academics being given a short, sharp, shock.

Many academic staff have their own practices and others may not consider that this scheme relevant to their specialism, but still, 16 of Kingston's staff have already signed up and more are expected to.At least five architectural practices have shown an interest.

The project programme, entitled Learning to Work: Working to Learn, was born out of the long-term interest that the staff at Kingston's School of Surveying and Architecture and Landscape have in ensuring that close contacts are made and maintained with practice. Many staff are currently involved in a practice consultancy and professional body assessment work (notably Part 3 Architecture and the APC of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). The university also runs sandwich courses which add further depth to the connections with practice.

Paul Mann, project manager of the scheme, says: 'One of the key issues that concerns higher education at present is the need to enhance employability skills through a relevant curriculum and the embedding of skills to ensure that graduates can respond to changing workbased needs.'

One way of achieving this is by increasing the interaction between employers and higher education staff.

'The former, ' Mann says, 'are not only recipients of graduate output but also accept responsibility for further training and education to ensure that the graduates have the opportunities to continue their personal, professional and intellectual education. Educational staff - as key players within undergraduate education, and increasingly as partners to employers in postgraduate education - must be fully aware of the changes taking place in industry.'

This 'life-skills' discussion is one which is commonly heard in educational circles. There is significant debate in mainstream educational establishments about the 'value' that each particular course offers.Whereas, in the past, education was for education's sake, today it has to have a 'point'.The point (or the 'desired objec t ive' as it used to be ca l led) , of education used to be to raise the intellectual standing of the student - nowadays the point is to provide 'worth' for future employers or for society as a whole. So what is wrong with that?

Is education now part of a job creation scheme to improve the employability of students? This question affects the pure sciences and arts more than the study of architecture, for obvious reasons.

'Value-engineering' is blighting courses in subjects such as English and history - which are having to justify the impossible; the direct relevance of the arts to business. The sciences are also having to link their syllabuses to the needs of industry; not in the usual sandwich course way, but by marginalising 'pure' sciences. Even the ivory towers of Oxbridge are having to prove their relevance.

In the view of many educationalists, this is the effect of the general dumbing down of standards. Social commentator Claire Fox, writing in the Times Educational Supplement, says: 'In education, the equation of vocational, skills-based training with academic subjects means that a national vocational qualification in hairdressing and a general national vocational qualification in catering are on a par with physics and English literature.' Education as a training ground for work simply results in 'keyboard skills' and 'interpersonal skills', being elevated to the status of real knowledge.

This is a subject of serious concern. Fortunately architecture, landscape and design are courses which have always had a direct relationship with the world of work, and so forging new links with business and practice is a little more straightforward than translating the rigours of abstract subjects into practical objectives. Vocational studies tend to relate, by definition, to out-turn products - architecture, after all, is nothing much if not about building buildings. The debate about whether architecture is an art or a science contains within it the recognition that, whichever muse is prioritised, it still straddles the divide between theory and practice. The information provided by Kingston University, however, still states that, 'the development of appropriate key skills in the undergraduate is vital to employability'.

Steve Bragg of Broadway Malyan, one of the participating practices, is keen to be involved in the experiment. 'We find that there is an enormous gap between what skills students come out of college with, and what they really need, ' he says. 'They are not well enough versed in the commercial aspects of architecture and they need to realise that a visual solution is only half a solution in the real world.'

Asked whether he thought architecture should become skills-based, he said he would hate students to stop being freethinking, experimental thinkers - 'in fact I would not employ a boring student'. But in the course of five years study, he believes that they 'should be able to have a grasp of practical issues as well as their more fanciful ideas'.

Steven Greenberg, a partner at DEGW, is even more bullish, thinking that this is a 'brilliant idea'; a means of 'making practice imaginative', rather than just making design technical. There were a lot more tutors employed in real practices 10 or 15 years ago, he recalls, tutors with real world experiences. 'Today, architecture schools and practices often can't afford that luxury and so younger architects are brought in as tutors who haven't got the breadth of knowledge and experience. This scheme will give tutors and students a broader insight into the range of skills employed in a range of offices.'

Staff will be taken into practices to shadow a member of staff; to sit in on site meetings and design discussions, as well as internal partner discussions and staff meetings to get a rounded view of the business of architecture. Their role will not be to do any particular project work, nor to make the tea and fold the prints, but to examine what business-based activities should be relayed back to the coursework.

Bragg identifies insurance and taxation issues as missing from courses, Greenberg mentions contract legislation.

The broad range of activities done by a great variety of practices could mean that assimilation of the information gleaned in the course of two weeks could be difficult.The practices, and teaching staff, therefore intend to maintain an on-going relationship of feedback to ensure that the scheme is constantly developing.

As Mann says, one of the key skills that all graduates need is the ability to develop in a self-disciplined manner such that they acknowledge the need to change and adapt during their working lives. 'If you want to survive, you have to change.'

Paul Mann, project manager of Learning to Work: Working to Learn can be contacted on 020 8547 2000

REFINE YOUR SKILLS IN ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE

A postgraduate course in architectural practice is being launched at the Hull School of Architecture and will run simultaneously in York, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull from January 2001.

Having recognised that many practitioners do not have a sound grasp of current regulations and the welter of legislative changes, this course is aimed at raising the awareness and understanding of the changing face of practical architecture.

The course covers issues from town and country planning legislation to PFI information and from contractual arrangements to life-cycle costing. There will be a variety of teaching methods including seminars and workshops but there is an emphasis on self-study.

Students will be able to access reading material via the 'University Virtual Campus', and be able to confer with staff and fellow students. In fact the university's monitoring of student performance will be partly based on the amount of time students are logged on to the site (so making a cup of tea while perusing the site could accrue a few extra research minutes).A 6,000-word case study is also required.

Successful candidates are awarded a Postgraduate Certificate in Architectural Practice worth 60 CATS (Credit Accumulated and Transfer Scheme) points - 'equivalent to one-third of a Masters qualification'.

The course fee is £520, although graduate and full members of the Royal Institute of British Architects receive an 80 per cent refund and pay only £104.

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