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Gordon Murray: 'We must listen to students and graduates'

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Richard Waite talks to Gordon Murray, the new chair of the Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture

What is SCHOSA and what does it aim to achieve?
The Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture (SCHOSA) is a forum for debate and review of any issues affecting the 43 schools of architecture in the UK. We are effectively the interface between the schools, the valiation process and the professional bodies. Schools
come to us with any educational concerns; we tell them if it is a common concern that relates to other schools and help them to deal with it.

What are your priorities for your two years as chair of SCHOSA?
I want to try to ensure that the validation process has a lighter touch, and I will review the role of external examiners, placing greater reliance on them and using more peer-reviewing.

I want to acknowledge that excellence in the profession goes far beyond the Part 3 examination, and recognise that schools of architecture are equals in this common purpose, with much to contribute as critical friends collaborating in the enhancement of architectural education.

Through regular meetings with the executives of the ARB and the RIBA, SCHOSA and its council have made great progress in achieving this common view, and we need to build on that. For me, this is one of SCHOSA’s most valuable activities.

How do you see the future of education over the next decade?
A fundamental in any senior role in academia is future-proofing. I feel that, at this time of great economic change, we are facing a fundamental and irrevocable shift in the nature of our profession and our education system. Developing architectural education programmes that anticipate and respond to such change is essential.

Architecture schools and their students are adept at making do with less, yet, in the future, we will see the point at which funding reductions impact on the structure of courses as prescribed. Central to this is a long-overdue holistic review of the relationship between academia and the profession, the nature of which has changed little in the last 50 years. If we accept that much has changed in both practice and academia in the intervening period, and will probably continue to do so, why maintain the clunky three-part system, particularly as Part 3 or its equivalent remains the singular gateway to practice and the profession.

This, ironically, stands outside most of our school’s validation and prescription procedures. So why not take it further and formalise that gateway as the entry point, leaving university quality-assurance systems and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) criteria as the mechanism by which harmony with professional objectives is ensured.

How will the future of schools of architecture change in the face of inevitable budget cuts?
There are two sides to the problem of budget cuts. One is the interface of the profession with the validation process; the other is how we ensure that architecture graduates are useful to society.

If there are cuts in budgets, there comes a point when they impact on the delivery of the course, and we have to ensure that validation and prescription procedures are altered to suit these changes. But we also need to remember that we must produce graduates that are not just architects – they need to be fit to work elsewhere in society.

Are universities preparing students for the modern world of architecture?
Extending the roles and capabilities of the graduate as a useful human being is central to our objectives in schools of architecture. We can turn out students able to fit neatly into the profession, or we can turn out students who are enablers and innovators in a wider built-environment macro-economy. Training architects as strategic design thinkers crystallises the ideas emanating from people such as Cedric Price, whose contribution to visionary thinking in architectural education remains relevant today.

How do you combat elitism in architecture, especially with increasing tuition fees?
The significant costs of tertiary education and the resulting levels of student debt, are discouraging to lower-income families and directly contradict the government’s objective of fair access to the professions.

In Scotland we do not have tuition fees foisted on us. But, while the imposition of fees is too politically sensitive to be promoted at present, it must be on the agenda. This reinforces the necessity of considering alternative mechanisms that permit more students to engage with the process of architectural education and to tailor it to their lifestyle – whether chosen, or imposed by economic circumstance.

Part-time courses, distance learning and work-based courses, together with greater flexibility in entry and skills-matching across the professions, are all essential in extending the meaning of the word ‘architect’.

In Scotland, architecture has been categorised as a non-studio-based course, which has caused controversy. How are you dealing with this?
In the recent lobbying of the Scottish Funding Council against proposed changes to banding, which could have severe implications for the funding of architecture courses in Scotland, it was clear that there was no recognition of studio-based design activity within architecture. Students at the University of Strathclyde invited the Scottish Funding Council to an enlightening tour of their studios and workshops. We will hear more this summer on how much the council has decided to recognise the reality. All this is a reminder of who is most affected by any funding change – the students.

We must continue to listen to students and graduates; they are why we are here. I get great pleasure from engagement with students, because education is a two-way street. Students are always much more on the ball; they get it.

What has happened to the QAA’s new benchmarking criteria for architecture courses?
The QAA’s 11 new benchmarking criteria – used to evaluate university architecture courses – have been adopted by university quality-assurance systems.

The ARB and the RIBA are now in the final stages of adoption. In the short term, this should lead to a lighter touch in the validation process, and SCHOSA is involved with the RIBA in moves in this direction.

The Centre for Education in the Built Environment is currently reviewing guidance on the role of external examiners and the idea of placing a greater reliance on them within the quality-assurance process. SCHOSA is committed to focusing on how this and peer-review can ensure quality and consistency, in order to move beyond the necessity of validation.

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