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The price of free labour

If students work for nothing, only the middle classes will become architects, says Kieran Long

Should you allow students to work for free in your practice? As a journalist, I can’t claim any moral high ground. People in my profession regularly work for free to get a foot in the door at the beginning of their careers.

We also know that architecture is not generally a high profit business, and especially not now. But there’s one important consideration. The culture of free working that exists in architecture perpetuates the stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated, upper-middle-class profession. If it has proven difficult enough to make the profession more diverse during the boom years, that will only be exacerbated if every practice takes the easy option of free labour.

As difficult as it is to think about anything other than the bottom line in these hard times, it would be a tragedy if students ended up as architects thanks to their parents’ ability to pay their rent. Individual practices have their share of responsibility in the education of the next generation of architects, and need to keep their side of the bargain.

However, our survey this week highlights a broader point: there are too many architecture schools in this country teaching too many students. A significant proportion of these will never find work in the profession. Higher education works too much like a market economy for this to be otherwise – schools are financially rewarded by the government for getting high numbers of applicants and students.

Are the schools honest with students that many of them will never become architects? Are architecture schools doing enough to promote the many paths open to trainee architects, such as planning, urban design, product design, project management, construction management, etc? From my experience of teaching, that is not the case. There is a stigma attached to following other professional paths and this needs to end. Architectural education has so much to offer, and gives those who experience it skills relevant in a broad variety of contexts. The schools, especially at degree level, need to help students think in broader terms.

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