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Are there too many architecture schools?

[Student Shows 2013] Essay 1: Jonathan Sergison

To answer this question requires an understanding of the purpose schools of architecture play and of the role they play in this country’s education policies. The difficulty I have is that I do not believe there is any clarity about either.

There are nearly 50 schools of architecture in the United Kingdom today - 10 in London alone. The RIBA operates a well-structured system of accreditation and evaluation of schools of architecture, with clearly stated assessment criteria and five-yearly visits. This is, however, a system that reacts to, rather than informs, the courses established by universities and colleges.

It is possible to study league tables in an attempt to understand what are the best or worst schools, although these classifications bear little relation to the true quality of the courses or to the abilities of the students, but rather emphasise student satisfaction. 20 per cent. While the total number of registered architects in the UK has remained constant since the 1980s, at around 30,000, the number of students enrolled in architecture courses currently stands at around 15,000. This increase is in no way related to any significant increase in the population or in construction activity. Interestingly, this larger number of students completed their studies in a time of economic recession. While downturns are difficult to predict, the question of why we need to create so many places in schools of architecture remains relevant.

Closely related to the issue of student numbers is the question asked here: of whether we do need as many schools of architecture as we currently have. And whether this is the most effective way of teaching architecture. I suspect that the number of architecture schools has more to do with the financial interests of universities than with any considered national policy.

In Switzerland, where I teach, there are only three federal schools of architecture. Of course the population, currently about 8 million, is significantly smaller than that of the UK. The number of existing architecture schools is designed to serve the needs of the three main regional groups in Switzerland (German, French and Italian speakers), but also recognises that it is much more effective to have three large schools with more concentrated facilities than many smaller ones.

There is also a clear distinction between these three schools, which offer a very rigorous training in construction, history, theory and design studies, and the regional vocational courses that provide training for architectural technicians. The Swiss building industry needs the combination of these two skills, and Swiss architecture schools are very clear about their different purposes and responsibilities. I do not see the same clarity in education policies in the United Kingdom. Too many schools of architecture place too much emphasis on fostering creativity and not enough on asking what purpose architectural education serves.

During the course of a typical year, our London studio receives many hundreds of unsolicited CVs from former students of British architecture schools. I am sorry to say that most of them are of such a low standard that we would never consider employing them. Part of the failure here must lie with the schools of architecture. While it is obvious that recent graduates cannot be expected to know everything, in the UK the relationship between school and practice does feel antagonistic, rather than mutually supportive.

It is my view that there are too many schools of architecture. The purpose they serve needs to be profoundly questioned at the national rather than individual level. Fewer schools would result in a more effective management of resources, and the training students receive would be more useful.

Considering that the cost of undertaking an architectural education for a student is now in excess of £100,000 when all expenses are taken into account, I feel it is frankly immoral for schools to be producing unemployable graduates.

Jonathan Sergison is co-founder with Stephen Bates of Sergison Bates architects and Professor of Architectural Design at the Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, Switzerland

Readers' comments (3)

  • "I feel it is frankly immoral for schools to be producing unemployable graduates." Agreed and agreed also that there are too many schools.

    As for the most effective way of teaching architecture, I'd be interested to find out the number of the heads of these many schools are experienced in the craft of architecture, have actually built projects of some scale....... or at all.

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  • adcrawford

    "I'd be interested to find out the number of the heads of these many schools are experienced in the craft of architecture, have actually built projects of some scale....... or at all."
    /\ this pretty much sums it up....but I'd add that the job description of any head of school focuses pretty much exclusively on research and how many symposia you've attended. Therefore it's hardly surprising if after acquiring their PHD, publishing 20 papers on obscure Ukrainian architects, talking about said architects at the Vladivostok international symposium on futurespaceplace (tm) and then jumping through endless EU research funding hoops to publish a book no one buys that any successful candidate for a head-of-school job has had any time to actually learn how to build anything!

    I have now wandered though another raft of end- of-year shows which display huge endeavour and creativity...but exhibit endless unbuildable, unreal, irrelevant and ultimately forgettable projects that will evaporate as soon as the shows close. What have the students learned? how to get cardboard laser cut and how to produce beautifully rendered drawings. The sole aim of the schools seems to be the end-of-year exhibition - and the staff all seem very satisfied with the output....as they should be as that is their job.

    No one in architecture schools or the a RIBA is going to suggest a radical change of course - that needs to come from practice.

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  • "I have now wandered though another raft of end- of-year shows which display huge endeavour and creativity...but exhibit endless unbuildable, unreal, irrelevant and ultimately forgettable projects that will evaporate as soon as the shows close."

    Sadly I have too, in the UK but also China and USA as critic, reviewer and also external examiner. Often brilliant cgi images and stunning drawings from cleary talented students of ultimately pointless projects.

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