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Education under the microscope

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I was pleased and privileged to be invited to chair the riba's major Review of Architectural Education, but I had no illusions about the nature and scale of the challenge. This is a time of momentous change for education generally. As a member of the arb, as a university professor and as a continuing practitioner, I hope to bring some cohesion to academic and practitioner aspirations. But I also hope to promote what are now recognised as complementary ambitions of the three key players in architectural education: the universities (with the Quality Assurance Agency), the professional institutes and a new regulatory body, the arb.

Review and timing

Education is always in a continuous process of review. But there are times in the cycle of events when there is a more significant need for a general coming together to reflect, to consider, make adjustments, formulate policies, to meet changing circumstances. This is just such a time.

At the outset, the review formed part of the riba's 1991/95 Strategic Study of the Profession. There may have been some doubts as to the justification of a review so soon after the Burton report, but if so these have certainly been overtaken by the series of events that will have profound implications for education, viz:

a new government with its declared commitment to improving quality in higher education

the Dearing report's recommendations and the qaa's agenda for quality.

the setting up of the arb.

These have all in themselves been sufficient to necessitate a review, and each represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the whole profession.There is also a European dimension which will become progressively more important and influential.

The qaa's agenda is far-reaching and its detailed proposals provide a framework for professional qualifications and prompt us to prepare for their implementation. But, on a wider consideration, education is now big business and has to operate in an international market, and all the agencies involved share the incentives and commitment of government to improve quality.

Extended timetable

Since the start of the review process, we have been conscious of the need to take advantage of the developments in other areas of education which are bound to affect our own thinking. Because of the enlightened nature of most of Dearing's recommendations, and the government's positive response, together with the qaa's agenda for quality, we need time to assimilate and understand the implications for our own proposals.

In addition, we want to accommodate the supportive contributions from arb. In all this, it has been preferable to be in the wake of such events rather than trying to anticipate and pre-judge a developing situation; so I make no apology for the change in timetable in order that the profession can benefit from the most encouraging climate of understanding.

We now propose:

May to September 1998 - continuing exploration of issues

October to December 1998 - detailed consultation within the profession and with the Schools of Architecture

December 1998 - workshops to debate the issues which have arisen

February 1999 - an education conference

April 1999 - statement on the outcome of the Review

Architects Registration Board

The establishment of the arb, with its legal responsibilities translated in contradistinction to those of Arcuk, has caused a number of misunderstandings in the profession at large, and it has taken time to overcome some of the initial sensitivities. I have myself been through a period of scepticism about the justification for such a regulatory body if it is merely perceived in the narrowest sense of consumer protection. The profession carries an overarching duty of care to society which is not reflected to the same extent in most other professions. It is as much in the interests of arb to promote a healthy, viable and competent profession as it is in the interests of society.

However, I am pleased to say that after a difficult induction period, I am now as optimistic about the supportive role of arb (and the consent that will be extended to it by the profession) as I am about the tripartite relationship of the three players and the improved understanding of one another's position.

A positive attitude

It is of paramount importance that we promote a positive attitude and be constructive in order to open up new horizons for architectural education in the twenty-first century. We want to avoid making this review sound like a defence of a position rather than a creative contribution for change. The Burton report contained many good ideas and concepts, many of which remain relevant but latent. It would be unfortunate if that report was only remembered as a defence of a five-year academic structure; we need to remind ourselves of what was achieved and reiterate many of those aspirations that were so clearly articulated - before they are forgotten.

Promotion of quality

In the context of education generally, architecture has so much to be assured and certain about. The richness and diversity in the way it is taught and how the learning process is managed, whether in an art school or a university of traditional or polytechnic origin, or in whatever faculty context, is part of its inherent strength. We obviously want to play to the particular talents and attributes of all schools. Quality in all its manifestations is to be valued and enhanced.

We pride ourselves that it is a pedagogic model with its project and design focus. The popularity of architectural education is envied universally, but we must be careful that this is turned to the profession's advantage rather than being abused for profitable reasons.

So, on the one hand, we wish to encourage a wider and richer base for architectural education but, on the other, we wish to safeguard the vocational standards of those who proceed to architectural careers. 'Centrality of design' will be the important link theme for the latter, but permeability in multi-disciplinary learning should be the aspiration no matter how difficult it will be to overcome the legacy of nineteenth-century institutionalism and cultural prejudice.

The professions' vocational interest should be focused more on Parts II and III, the academic standards of which will be truly post-graduate and be recognised as such. This post-graduate status should elevate quality in specialism and promote research; the whole sequential progression will aspire to higher academic ambition.

Diminishing resources

I don't pretend that everything currently promotes a mood of optimism. We are operating within an ever-diminishing resource base. It seems ironic for the government to be promulgating aspirations to quality when the most serious threat to architectural education standards is deteriorating teacher-pupil ratios, inadequate school-based work stations, and the consequent loss of a studio ethos because of increasing numbers. There is always a willingness to accept the challenge of new teaching methods, but not at the expense of what have always been regarded as fundamental prerequisites of the pedagogic principle.

Many schools are now financially viable in a way they were never before, but are unable to enjoy returns on their endeavours because of claims to parity by other disciplines in the faculty context. Because of the demise of public practice, and except for a few isolated examples in private practice, the profession outside academia is not in a position to share much of the responsibility of education. We would be denying our basic responsibility to make assumptions that it could.

Structure of the review

Chris Colbourne's original May 1997 position paper proposed several sector groups chaired by eminent and talented members of the profession. Their brief was to consult as widely as possible. Those original groups were:

Admissions and Policy Standards, chaired by Helen Mallinson

Parts I and II Curriculum and Structure, chaired by Jeremy Till

Part III Curriculum and Structure and cpd, chaired by Judith Farren- Bradley

Research, chaired by Sarah Lupton

Multi-Professional Education, chaired by Professor Richard Frewer

Specialist Skill Training and Qualifications, chaired by Peter Clegg.

We have now added two more:

Validation, chaired by Professor Bryan Lawson

A curriculum, chaired by Mohsen Mostafavi.

Excellent papers have already been written, but it is unlikely that the full consultation process will be finalised before the end of the summer; it is then intended to publish a series of papers in this journal in consecutive weeks in the autumn.

Over the years, each review of education is seen retrospectively to have focused on an overriding objective, in addition to covering a vast and complex subject. Most notably, the 1958 Oxford Conference concentrated on the need for an improved technical and science-based profession, but the consequences flowing from that conference, and the manner in which specialist expertise was integrated, have been disappointing.

In a sense, those issues of the mid-century are still relevant. With the wisdom of hindsight, we understand the importance of integration (how to perceive the subject holistically) in a progressively increasing specialist world, but I do not underestimate the task of how to make the necessary adjustments.

This review picks up the currently fashionable genre of quality, but I hope in a really committed sense of the pursuit of excellence. The challenge and dilemma will be how to achieve this given what seems to be an ever- diminishing resource base.

What is unavoidable, and I hope to be welcomed, is that this review will be encompassed by a new framework for inspection. The qaa agenda offers the potential for 'a reduction in the burden of external scrutiny' of institutions, by co-ordinating its own assessment with that of professional and statutory bodies, and by strengthening the external examiner system. Subject standards will be assessed in relation to benchmark information.

However, with the right attitude, and with these assessments seen as positive constructive exercises, this should be regarded as an opportunity rather than as a threat. Much of this anticipates our own thinking, and is very much in the joint interests of the universities, the riba and the arb.

I should like to finish with an adapted quote from Mark Twain: 'We should like our students to venture through life with the quiet certitude of a Christian holding four aces'; ie creative, confident, streetwise and knowledgeable.

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