Tony Blair and the RIBA should be at one on education
I was grateful to David Dunster, head of school at Liverpool University, for alerting me to Tony Blair's new drive, reported in last Saturday's Independent, to attract an extra 75,000 foreign students to British universities and colleges. In pursuit of this objective, the prime minister has asked advertisers and marketing consultants to 're-brand' British universities and colleges in a concerted effort to capture the £700 million of fees that would accrue.
Until recently, vice-chancellors would have united as one to reject such threats to academia. But not today - education is big money, and the modern vice-chancellor is first and foremost a businessperson. They are effecting changes that chill the hearts and numb the minds of traditional academics. Meanwhile, teaching staff struggle to make ever less adequate resources service ever more bureaucratised institutions.
And that, surely, is the point. Mr Blair may well aspire to increase Britain's share of the global market in foreign students from 17 to 25 per cent by the year 2005. He may well value the potential for ongoing trade and business with foreign students after graduation, and he is right to endorse, with confidence, the international reputation of our schools and universities.
But his government will have to do better than merely reinvest the extra fees earned by foreign students into our universities. An initiative of this scale, laudable as it is, must be financed in advance if it is to succeed. To fail in that respect is to fail in our duties. Against such failure, our reputation for academic excellence will deteriorate, and the 'follow-on' business and fees that accompany it will become increasingly elusive.
Architecture, of course, welcomes Mr Blair's initiative. The RIBA has long encouraged our universities in their work with overseas students and recognises that it necessitates significant adjustments to the teaching programmes in order to properly service their needs and interests. The Architectural Association, under Alvin Boyarsky's leadership, long ago established itself as a truly international school and now enjoys a richly cosmopolitan character. Many other schools have attracted students in significant numbers.
With respect to architecture, Tony Blair need not therefore worry about 're-branding' because the UK schools are well ahead of the game: they enjoy the recognition of the RIBA for their examinations. That 'brand' is respected the world over - so much so that more than seventy overseas schools, from Colombia to Hong Kong and from Finland to South Africa, have sought recognition from the RIBA overseas validation service.
Indeed, an ever-increasing list of countries seeks the RIBA's validation services for premier schools, and against this background it is inexplicable that the RIBA's involvement in UK architectural education should now be under such severe threat.
But that is the sad truth: the relatively new Architects Registration Board, which has no experience in this field, continues relentlessly in its clumsy efforts to assume ultimate control of the validation of UK schools. However, as RIBA vice-president for education, I can state unequivocally that the RIBA Council is absolute in its commitment to resist such ambitions by the ARB. That said, we deeply resent the time that this wasteful dispute, which saps our energy and diverts our purpose, continues to take.
The RIBA is happy to work with ARB, but under no circumstances will the institute allow any other organisation to establish exclusive control over courses that carry exemption from the RIBA's external examinations. That is the bottom line, which ARB continues to challenge.
The 'brand' that underpins our schools' current ability to attract 2,500 overseas students per year, worth some £18 million in fees alone, is based on joint RIBA/ARB recognition. The government wants, quite rightly to build on that brand, but it must realise that to do so means, in the first instance, that it must be protected. That requires the ongoing effective involvement of the institute.