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Report: Universities not equipping architecture students for real world

  • 11 Comments

Four out of five employers believe architecture schools are failing to provide students with the practical skills needed to practice, according to a major new survey

The poll, conducted by NBS for RIBA Appointments, also found that 80 per cent of employers think architectural education puts theoretical knowledge above practical ability, while more than half say courses do not reflect architecture in the modern world.

Both the employers and students polled said that more time should be spent in practice during their training to make sure they are better prepared for the workplace.

Paul Chappell, manager at RIBA Appointments, said: ‘The survey highlights some areas for concern, with a widespread feeling that many architectural students and graduates are simply not being provided with the skills they need to work in practice.’

The research compared the views of 150 employers and almost 600 students and recent graduates at Parts 1, 2 and 3 levels.

It also found that more than half of employers and almost two-thirds of graduates think there should be alternative routes into architecture, such as apprenticeships.

Albena Atanassova, student representative on the RIBA council, said: ‘We as students of architecture and young professionals face a reality of an increasingly expensive education that provides a broad understanding of the profession.

‘However it fails to prepare us for the challenges that the contemporary architect faces on a daily basis.’


She called for more guided teaching delivered by practicing architects and architectural practices, as well as cross-disciplinary projects with other courses related to the construction industry and local authorities, she added.

In response, academics have emphasised that architecture schools already go out of their way to give students vocational experience.

Katharine Heron, professor of architecture at University of Westminster, said: ‘At Westminster we have a lot of practice links and we encourage it through teaching and in research All courses normally have two year’s work based learning known through the year out and Part 3.’

She said that there was an ongoing debate about allowing other routes into the profession, but the necessary models have yet to be created.

Professor Kevin Singh, head of the Birmingham School of Architecture, cited numerous ways in which courses prepare students for work.

However, he added: ‘You might argue that there are a lot of things about the working world that are difficult to replicate in a university. It is difficult to teach about cost, about close teamwork with other disciplines, and making quick decisions.’

He added that the RIBA currently encourages architecture schools to be distinctive, meaning it is unrealistic to expect all students to graduate with the same attributes.

The survey also found that only a third of students rated hand drawing as a desirable skill, compared to 70 per cent of employers.

In addition, only 15 per cent of part 3 students said that knowledge of the law was important for employers, compared to the real situation – 44 per cent of employers said that it is important.

The RIBA is currently undertaking a review of architectural education, launched in 2013.

Comment:

Carl Meddings, principal lecturer and subject leader for architecture at the University of Huddersfield

‘All schools of architecture engage with the profession regionally, nationally and internationally. The presentation of the results of this survey seem to imply a void between academia and practice, which, in my experience, doesn’t exist. It also seems to imply that all architectural education is the same - locked away behind the closed doors of fusty institutions - which it isn’t. It’s extraordinarily diverse.

‘In the current structure of architectural education in the UK, the architectural profession has an extremely important role to play in developing practical and professional skills in the workplace. Universities are forging ever stronger relationships with practices to help develop the professional attitudes and attributes that will position our graduates to make the most of the opportunities that real office experience can provide.

‘The RIBA Architecture Education Review is currently considering ways to allow much greater flexibility to suit the needs of students, academic institutions and architectural practices and I imagine that practical training is a key component of this review.

‘We are always ready to consider new ways of doing things.’

Zlatina Spasova, coordinator of the Architecture Students Network

‘This research echoes what has been said at past ASN conferences. Students appreciate the emphasis placed on design but realise the need for relevance of what is being taught to reflect contemporary tendencies in architecture.

‘Students have also expressed concern of the limited technical and professional skills they leave university with, largely unprepared for the reality of the profession. Education should prepare future architects for the full spectrum of working in practice, which has changed drastically from the days when architects were acting as the ‘master builders’. We’d like to see more part-time architects teaching in our schools who bring in up-to-date knowledge of the latest technical and industry knowledge.

‘On the bright side, things are gradually changing with many schools offering live projects allowing students to develop hands-on technical knowledge and engage with end users, clients and other professionals, thus providing them with key skills for practice. Schools such as the CAT, Sheffield and Portsmouth place a strong emphasis on live projects.

‘Another issue discussed during ASN conferences was that it is the skills and knowledge that matter for being an architect and not necessary the number of years in education or where it was obtained. Therefore, we support the opportunity to have alternative routes into the profession and are hoping that the RIBA Education Review will enable this.’



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Readers' comments (11)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    It’s encouraging that the profession is embarking on a long overdue review of education. As fees rise to £9,000 a year, it has been evident for some time that, as Jeremy Till, Pro Vice Chancellor of London’s University of the Arts puts it, architectural education will become a victim of its own hubris unless something is done.
    If reform has become a priority for some educationalists it is no less so for the world of practice. For years we have been criticising the teaching environment that encourages a culture of needless individualism and innovation from young architects with inadequate experience and leaves us in practice with the task of retraining.
    The generalist world that this system was designed for is now a thing of the past. A better approach would be a three year degree to RIBA recognition followed by apprenticeships and the wider use of Masters degrees that would service the requirements of an increasingly specialised industry. The RIBA system of chartered practice should be extended to provide trainees with a range of practice opportunities in which to serve their apprenticeships and practices such as mine should be incentivised to extend our policy of study support for employees pursuing Masters.
    It’s really encouraging that the related questions of educational standards, levels of competence and regulation are now the subject of review. We can arrest the decline of the profession and build a foundation for its future if we get these changes right. The RIBA Council debates Educational reform this spring and later in the year goes on to prepare the successor to Angela Brady's 'Leading Architecture' 5 year strategy. The opportunity cannot come a moment too soon.
    Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner HTA Design LLP.

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  • In my opinion is a matter of being technically prepared. The real world is full of technical decisions which are directly linked with costs, meaning money, meaning gaining confidence in front of clients and public institutions. After having acquired the technical stage, it is required to educate the humanistic side. But in this order, not the other way round. Students have to pay their bills. Architects have evolved into high skilled drafters. The pressure put into the market by great architecture firms has overwhelmed institutions and academicians. In my opinion, is a lack of responsability having lead the studies into (almost exclusively) design. Autocad, photoshop, Sketchup...are this skills valuable in the real world? This skills are extremely overated in architecture schools. In my opinion is amatter of being technichally prepared. Real world is full of technical decissions which are directly linked with costs, meaning money, meaning gaining confidence in front of clients and public institutions. After having acquired the technical stage, it is required to educate the humanistic side. But in this order, not the other way round. Students have to pay bills and onlynice drawings made with the latest software packages is not demanded.

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  • Are we not raking over old ground here??
    This matter was raised over 35 years ago, when after obtaining ONC & HNC Construction certificates, I studied Architecture at PNL on a day release basis. The meriits of a technical background were triumphed as beneficial to ultimately producing school design projects.
    Unfortunately passing my Part 2 coincided with 1990 recession and redundancies and the growth of the Project Manager and Design & Build era.
    Maybe like many other designer/builder professionals i diversified and adapted to try and obtain some reasonable standard of living and probably like most still doing so today.

    Roy Pearson
    MRICS, MCIOB

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  • This makes very interesting reading and there are some strong parallels with the design profession across all disciplines and obviously interior design education.

    Our own experience together with other design sector research suggests that there is a widening perception gap between what students are expecting when moving into work and what employers expect of graduates.

    The reasons I suspect are many fold. From the employers’ viewpoint, the nature and pace at which practices now work, the onerous requirements of practice, cost pressures on employers and employment costs mean that employees need to earn from day one.

    As for the students, exposure to the real world whist studying is a lottery in respect of which course they attend, the experience of the teaching staff, whether live projects are available, industry and practice links and so on.

    The ‘unstructured’ apprenticeships of the past, whereby the first 3 years in work spent learning the trade provided the graduate with a smooth transition and the employer with a return on investment, appear to have been lost.

    Students now pay for an education and want to start earning when they graduate, not learning afresh.

    Some courses are waking up to these demands and are changing but there needs to be a shift in thinking as to how design/architecture education is delivered, over what period, by whom, where and what is its content.

    All the points raised in this article resonate with the Chartered Society of Designers and we developed a Course Endorsement Programme to address these issues within design education. Over the past 5 years we have been collaborating with design courses to assist graduates in bridging the gap ‘from learning to earning’™ by influencing the teaching programme to ensure graduates are well prepared for entering practice.

    The programme requires that courses develop links with practice, set relevant briefs, engage visiting lecturers and speakers, introduce jargon, develop interdisciplinary working with other professions and that access to related trades and professions is provided.

    The insistence within the programme on courses providing professional practice modules ensures students become aware of costing projects, HR issues, negotiating and most importantly IP.

    It is also important that students learn how to take risk which within education is often inhibited due to the inflexibility of university marking systems.

    Our experience in the design sector is that students want to know what employers want of them, they want to develop the skills that employers want, they want to know how to do the job not just how to design.

    The professional bodies have a major role to play here in interfacing between employers and education to ensure that the future generation of practitioners gets what it pays for and that that education, however it is delivered and by whom, is fit for purpose.

    Frank Peters FCSD
    Chief Executive - Chartered Society of Designers

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  • In the late '90s I did my Part 1 at the University of Bath, a four-year sandwich course in which you spent 6 months of your 2nd, 3rd and 4th years in practice. Thus Uni informed practice which informed Uni which informed practice and so on in an upward spiral.

    We also collaborated with the structural/civil engineering students on at least one project each year. This mix was fantastic and I recommend it very highly.

    I genuinely believe the sandwich course structure has been key in giving me a very sound real-world practical skills base which has meant I've never been out of work since Part 1 graduation in 2001. I even opted to risk changing jobs not once but twice during the current economic depression, both successful upward career moves.

    Chris Benson, Architect

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  • Roland Karthaus

    Ben Darbyshire's points are well made: there is a need for reform of education and its currently underway. As are some of the other points above: creative architectural skills are difficult to develop without technical knowledge to say the least and the apparently increasing gap between practice and education in general is undoubtedly problematic. Schools are responding to this in different ways: at UEL we have a long history of live construction projects in the local community, of tutors who are practicing architects, of integrating professional practice into studio work and of combining traditional drawing and model-making skills with new digital technologies. This month we established a school-based practice to develop this area further.

    This is not the whole picture though, and hence why the differences amongst schools is important - a healthy culture also contains extremes. Architectural education has to tread a fine line between being both practically relevant and creatively and intellectually explorative. We are not only training today's Architects, but tomorrow's. The world was radically different 30 years ago and will be different again in 30 years. On the other hand, current graduates can't wait 30 years for the right job to come along. The two positions are not mutually exclusive.

    What I advocate is a stronger and perhaps more equal relationship between practice and education as a whole. That means being able to ask each other tough questions and gain, learn and challenge one another. Hellman's cartoon neatly satirises the debate by showing the extremes, but there are plenty of Architects who are not divas with an army of slaves and plenty of schools not churning out divas. We probably do need a few divas though hopefully not slaves. In spite of the apparent 'crisis' we still have a globally admired architectural education system based on a varied culture and a globally admired practice culture that is equally varied. They need adjusting and bringing closer together, but they are not broken; let's be careful not to over-fix them.

    Roland Karthaus
    MArch Part 2 leader and Director of the Civic Architecture Office at UEL

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  • This article presumes that the point of an architectural education is to practice as an architect. However, approximately only 1/3 of students entering part 1 end up registering with ARB.
    According to the latest RIBA stats (for 2012/13), there were 14,936 Part 1 and Part 2 students at validated schools in the UK - the most ever, and predicted to rise.
    So the "real world" for the majority of these students has nothing to do with door schedules or architects' instructions.
    Just saying!

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  • I asked our architects if any had been taught at college what a vapour barrier is, and exactly where it goes, and some other key aspects of technical understanding. None had. That’s as absurd as a school of medicine not teaching anatomy. A terrible indictment on the state of architectural education.
    The cost of housing forces newly qualifieds to need to generate a good income. The schools leave them between a rock and a hard place, many without adequate marketable skill to command a good income for many years. And an unnecessary liability to practices who have to raise them from such untrained depths.
    As one commentator notes, most practices, particularly small ones, run lean, without the excess income to train to the extent required. Year out students are often used as cheap CGI button jockeys, which gives virtually no useful training. The current boom and skill shortage may see a change to more intense training of part II's in practice to compensate for the deficit they inherit from the schools. But the schools should not leave them so ill prepared.
    The key deficit is in technical ability, to enable them to create construction detail and co-ordinate complex technical input into a concept. And to create construction documentation.
    A view coming across in the comments is that students would best gain their wider practical construction/ technical/ communication experience, and the ability to create holistic meaningful design, in practice.
    All this can be taught in college. It should be a significant module of education, starting with something as simple as say a dog kennel and by the end of the course endowing an understanding of first principals and the ability to create a credible construction package for, say, a small house or office. All with the purpose of teaching first principals as well as current techniques.
    Schools need to be prestigious to attract the best. RIBA Silver Medal placings are a key barometer of their standing. The medal’s emphasis on presentation, and often precocious irrelevance to practice (other than showing creative potential), must be key in generating the current deficit. The emphasis in the Silver Medal and RIBA list of requirements for course approval could be changed, driving a more holistic and useful agenda. At least 60% of a project fee is spent on technical delivery and co-ordination. Courses should perhaps reflect such an emphasis in training. Many schools may have to change the profile of their staff to facilitate this excellence in technical training, and limit the emphasis on extremely time consuming presentation and diversions into realms that are not relevant in practice.
    This broader agenda could combine with course streaming into specialised skills selected for different student aptitudes, whilst retaining some general training. Specialisation could start at college, acknowledging the “jack of all trades” architect is a thing of the past.
    David Lees, Silver Medal winner from a time when technical training was, apparently, given more importance.

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  • In Schools of Architecture there is an increasing engagement with live projects (projects with a real client and output that is useful to those outside of the academy) as a way of introducing some of the elements that Kevin Singh argues are difficult to address in University. In particular live projects are great at introducing an element of costing, about close teamwork (often with other disciplines), and making quick decisions, amongst other things. At the University of the West of England, Bristol, we run live projects both at undergraduate and in the postgraduate course and see this as hugely valuable and enjoyable for our students. They learn to communicate with clients (both listening and presenting) as well as developing their work to a buildable (and sometimes actually built) solution.
    However we are also aware that the most important set of skills that we can equip our students with are more transferrable skills of creative thinking, ability to learn and ability to communicate ideas. These skills both allow students to succeed in a career in architecture as well as in other disciplines (which as Steve Parnell rightly points out is where that majority of our students will take advantage of their skills).
    In discussion with our partner practices this issue of what skills and abilities we should be teaching within our courses is debated rigorously. What the discussions tend to agree on, is that current architectural practice is immensely varied and quick to develop, that the most valuable abilities that they look for in a graduate are of creative, intelligent thinking, ability to learn and communication skills. These are all skills that an education in architecture is hugely successful at engendering.

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  • As an Architect who represents a traditional industry I am always shocked at the antipathy shown to the the profession by product manufacturers outside my industry. The general perception away from the actual construction site is that we are spoilt children dancing to an esoteric tune divorced from reality. Politicians join in with this fiction.
    When we lost the financial control of the building process with D&B we gave away our leadership role.
    I personally am amazed by the intelligence and creativity of the young Architects I meet. We need to fight back and education is key. Creativity must not be sacrificed to the desire to produce excellent door schedules.as important as these are.

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