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Should architecture schools produce ‘oven-ready’ architects?

[Student Shows 2013] Essay 4: Kevin Singh

The simple answer is of course that there is more than one type of oven! Despite the media image of starchitects, the RIBA’s Business Benchmarking survey reinforces the profession’s actual diversity with its reference to five sizes and types of practice, from micro to large with various gradations in between.

As a head of school who also runs an architectural practice, it is a fascinating question to explore. So what does ‘oven-ready’ really mean? Well, probably a graduate who is ‘useful’ (ie has an earning capacity) to the practice from day one, which will most likely be characterised by excellent CAD skills and the ability to detail, rather than the theoretical, conceptual and design skills that schools of architecture traditionally value. The battleground of education versus training is set.

Educators will naturally say that practices should be more patient and allow graduates to learn on the job. It’s a bit like being stuck behind a learner driver and having to remind yourself that you were once a learner too. However, all is not lost. We have had a number of employers who have enthused about the breath of fresh air that graduates bring to their practices, before they are almost inevitably indoctrinated into the monotony
of practice.

The much-improved RIBA validation process now places ‘distinctiveness’ at its core, encouraging schools to deliver differing types of graduates, and while it is virtually impossible to have 40-plus unique schools, it does reinforce the notion that graduates should be prepared for a variety of ovens.

There is obviously a difference between ‘oven-readiness’ at Part 1 and Part 2, but surely the most important thing is that graduates (who, lest we forget, are the future of our profession) are as well equipped for the rigours of practice as possible. We should bear in mind, though, that they are educated in a system which could be considered a parallel universe, because designs are ostensibly hypothetical, without the impurities of an opinionated client, planning constraints, budgets, complicated procurement routes or an awkward contractor.

Interestingly, our school is located in a faculty of art and design, so we occupy a world of fine artists, jewellers, fashion, and graphic and product designers. These designer-maker disciplines are far more accustomed
to being entrepreneurial, a quality which we think is becoming more and more important to our students.

This doesn’t necessarily mean being an Alan Sugar, but refers to the virtues of being innovative, having business acumen and, in a consumer, branded society, being distinct. Like a number of other schools, we run live projects that help students understand the delivery of a project first-hand and learn the softer, personal and - dare I say - business skills, which can be the difference between employment in practice or McDonald’s.

We also take management practice and law incredibly seriously, way before the inevitable focusing effect of Part 3, and have recently introduced an Apprentice-style series of team tasks in which students confront issues such as the philosophy and identity of a new practice, set up and running costs, professional fees, and even the dilemmas of speculative work. And we have plans in place to run a two-week work placement scheme for our second-year BA students.

But back to the different types of oven for a moment; these ovens are not even all architecture ovens. A recent research project we ran revealed the alarming drop-out rates of architecture students nationally from Part 1 through to Part 3, with women and ethnic minorities in particular falling by the wayside. There were, however, more encouraging findings, which showed that many students find other meaningful careers, such as teaching and interior design. There were an impressive number of rock and pop stars, and even an air-traffic controller.

The pedagogic debate of education versus training rages on, but the shadow of tuition fees looms large.

I’m sure that admissions tutors witness more and more parents attending open days, all wanting to know how their child will fare after education and whether they will get a job. We know that architecture doesn’t pay well, so don’t we at least have a responsibility to make our students employable in the field they have entrusted us to prepare them for? It will be fascinating to see if schools ‘blink first’, and evolve their programmes towards the training end of the spectrum in this new world of full tuition fees. We have recently had a national contractor offer to provide BIM training to our students, as they have one eye on the future of procurement. Does this constitute a sell out, or just being ahead of the curve?

So an oven-ready graduate might be someone who is immediately productive and profitable, yet able to challenge conventions; be technologically savvy, yet skilled at sketching and model-making; and be a fantastic designer in the face of the challenges of reality. A certain entrepreneur would no doubt say, ‘you’re hired’!

Professor Kevin W Singh is head of Birmingham School of Architecture

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