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The 'divided' future of architectural education

Ed Dorrell reports on the implications of the government's proposed changes to university funding in its long-awaited Higher Education White Paper

Heads of schools are up in arms following the publication last week of the government's Higher Education White Paper. They are convinced that problems lie ahead for students entering schools of architecture, and warn that proposed changes to university funding could produce a two-tier architectural education system that discriminates against students from deprived backgrounds.

The RIBA's vice-president for education, Jack Pringle, has estimated that a student commencing Part 1 in two years' time can reasonably expect to owe as much as £35,000 by the time they qualify. There are also major concerns about differing standards emerging in the quality of that education. At the moment, all schools receive the same amount of cash for each student. But this is set to change.

From now on all universities will be allowed to decide how much they charge students - anything up to £3,000 per year. While the universities determined to retain their research and academic reputations are keen to obtain the maximum - mainly Oxbridge and the Redbricks - others, such as those expolytechnics traditionally focused on undergraduate teaching, are considerably more reticent.

There are widespread fears that these differences will lead to a class-based system. Those from poorer backgrounds will go to schools that keep fees low - but which have disappointing teaching as a result - while richer students receive a 'superior' education.

Anne Boddington, head of the architecture school at the University of Brighton, described the potential consequences as a 'class-orientated, two-tier system born from the differences in fees charged'.

And of seven heads interviewed by the AJ, all said they were deeply concerned and vociferously opposed to the changes.

The University of Huddersfield's Richard Fellows said architecture would be particularly hard hit. 'We have a lot of trouble retaining students already, ' he said. 'A high proportion are from deprived backgrounds, and the last thing they need is the prospect of more debt.' He said that schools with a tradition of teaching in poorer areas are in a lot of trouble. 'There is a massive shortage of cash in the system at the moment. Retention of students is getting worse and these reforms will make it even harder.'

However, the White Paper also raises more fundamental questions about the future structure of architectural education. Boddington believes it will bring much-needed reforms to a head. 'There are questions that need to be asked about the length of time it takes to become an architect, ' she told the AJ.

'With the poor pay in most first jobs and the kind of debts that most students will accrue, many potential applicants will be put off. If the course took less time, it could make some difference.'

Perhaps the greatest opposition to the reforms came from the University of Liverpool's David Dunster, who described the White Paper as 'absolute rubbish'. He warned: 'It is going to make architecture a purely upper-middle class profession again. It is a pretty lethal cocktail and I suspect it is going to ruin the whole system of architectural education in this country.'

THE WHITE PAPER'S KEY POINTS

Universities awarded power to charge fees of up to £3,000 a year

Reintroduction of a £1,000 maintenance grant for those from the very poorest backgrounds

Fees to be paid back only after graduate earns more than £15,000 per year

Formal links between local businesses and universities to be encouraged

FIRST SCHOOLS EXPECTED TO CHARGE THE MAXIMUM

University of Manchester

University of Liverpool

University of Cambridge

University of Newcastle upon Tyne

University of Nottingham

University of Edinburgh

University of Glasgow

The student view: what's the point of studying architecture?

John Deffenbaugh reports from the fifth annual archaos student forum

The message from the government is clear - the time has come for students to make a greater financial contribution to the cost of their education, be it through a graduate tax or top-up fees. 'Have students had it easy for too long?' asked one national newspaper last week, while others stipulated that it was about time we put down our pint glasses and started to take things more seriously. The fifth annual archaos student forum, held at the University of Newcastle last Friday, posed a question of its own: 'What is the point of spending a prolonged period of time at university, preparing to enter a profession that is becoming increasingly marginalised and introspective?'

The issue was debated by the conference's 70 delegates, representing 27 UK schools of architecture, along with speakers Tim Bailey of Xsite Architecture, president-elect of the RIBA George Ferguson and CABE commissioner Irena Bauman. Needless to say, students studying a course totalling five academic years were unenthusiastic about the prospect of annual top-up fees. Furthermore, it was felt that, for architectural education to remain viable, there should be more of a pronounced difference between Part 1 and 2 courses. While degree courses should place an emphasis on creativity and theoretical ideals, diploma-level students - who in returning after their year-out have signalled that they intend to pursue architecture as a career - should receive a more focused education in preparation for Part 3.

It was also felt that many courses lacked an interdisciplinary approach, preferring to remain isolated and denying students the potential to learn from others in related disciplines. Given that many schools of architecture teach within either a faculty of the built environment or an art college, it seems the opportunity is being wasted.

The question of employability became apparent when Irena Bauman said that a school leaver had been of more value to her practice than previous Part 1 year-out students, who had come loaded with conceptual baggage but lacked the tools to express their ideas. IT skills and fluency in computer graphics were felt key to overcoming this, giving year-out students a distinct advantage over school leavers and older graduates.

Indeed, IT was described by former RIBA student representative Beth Kay as our 'lethal weapon'. Fortunately, computer teaching now forms an integral part of many Part 1 courses. Students overwhelmingly voted for the current two-part system to be replaced by a four-year degree with an emphasis on creativity, feeling that subjects such as professional management and contract would be better learned in the workplace, where their application can be properly understood.

However, initial findings in the 2001-02 archaos financial and equal opportunities survey indicate that the average earnings for a Part 1 year-out student are still below the minimum wage, and that practices are taking little notice of the RIBA/archaos minimum conditions of employment for year-out placements. It remains to be seen how this will be affected by the increasing number of students entering the first year.

Despite the many problems facing students, the tone of the day was far from melancholy. 'What's the Point?'proved to be more of a rhetorical question than an underlining statement. However, the fact remains that a number of people will simply not be able to afford to enter architecture. The government should consider the human impact of its proposals carefully.

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