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Revealed: The AJ student survey results 2015


Debt among architecture students is eye-watering and set to rise - and many question whether the education they are paying for is worth the cost

Nearly a quarter of architecture students expect to owe more than £50,000 by the time they finish their course, according to new research by the AJ.

The survey, carried out to mark the AJ’s special student issue, found that 23 per cent of students expect to have debts of above £50,000, with respondents estimating that the cost of completing Parts 1 and 2 is now in the region of £65,000.  

Three fifths (60 per cent) of the 447 UK students surveyed said they expected to be in more than £30,000 of debt by the end of their course and almost a third of all respondents feared they would never pay back all the money they had borrowed.

The results of the survey come as chancellor George Osborne announced the government was planning to scrap maintenance grants to cover students’ living costs. 

The survey found that three-quarters of students believed Osborne’s latest move would put future candidates off studying architecture.

One respondent, a Part 1 student from the University of Westminster, said: ‘As a student of architecture, I spend more per year than anyone I know on other courses. So many people I know can just about get by with food after paying for printing and modelling materials and field trips.’

She added: ‘The top-up grants [for living costs] make a huge difference to those people who are already struggling.’

Responding to the survey’s findings on maintenance grants, Birmingham School of Architecture head Kevin Singh said: ‘Student debt and the removal of maintenance grants is a concern, not only in terms of affecting the overall numbers of students studying architecture but also the demographics. This is something we can ill afford in a profession that is not as diverse as it should be.’

Despite spending an average of £5,200 on tuition fees each year, a large proportion of architecture students surveyed said their degrees were not worth it. Just six per cent said their course was excellent value for money, while more than a third said the value of their course was poor.

Andy Humphreys, programme leader of the BA architecture course at the University of Plymouth, said he was not surprised by the high levels of dissatisfaction. ‘The perception [of value] between student and institution has now had a dynamic shift,’ he said. ‘The fee-paying student is the customer. In this role shift there is an expectation. Architectural education hasn’t responded to this.’

Student graph AJ July 2015 trim

Meanwhile, almost half (46 per cent) of the Part 2 students surveyed said their education wasn’t preparing them for practice, while 43 per cent said construction, technology and business teaching were not good enough.

Adrian Alexandrescu, a Part 2 student at Oxford Brookes University, said: ‘We stay in university this long in order to learn something that will help in the real world. Conceptual design is all good but we need practical and practice training as well.’

Robert  Watson a Part 1 student at Northumbria University, added: ‘I haven’t been given sufficient knowledge of computer packages such as CAD and Revit, which is having a negative impact on my efforts to find a year-out job. Revit courses are available to enrol on, but for a high price that only the financially-elite students can part with. This should have been included in the £9,000 per year I paid.’

In terms of schools and employers’ responsibilities to students, almost 90 per cent said practices had a responsibility to educate students while more than 60 per cent of those surveyed said universities should prepare them for practice.

Rhiain Bower, a Part 1 year-out student, commented: ‘There is nothing worse than being thrown into a job that your education has specifically led up to and being overwhelmed with what you are lacking. Many of my peers who had not had prior experience have struggled, with practices expecting them to be better equipped for the role.’

But architect Alan Dunlop, visiting professor at Liverpool University and Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at Robert Gordon University, insisted it was not down to architecture schools to teach such skills. 

‘In order to respond to a culture of low fees and low pay, there is pressure on universities coming from the profession to make students office-ready, and to ensure that more teaching effort is diverted to administrate business, legal and professional skills. This is a mistake,’ he said.

‘The primary goal of architectural education is to instil in students what it is to be an architect, not to churn out employees, administrators or CAD operators. The responsibility of the schools is to promote critical engagement and open enquiry; to teach history, social responsibility and the importance of context; and to develop students as excellent designers, who also have the expertise and knowledge required to make buildings of worth.’

In terms of the length of the course, 65 per cent of UK students said architectural education was too long, and more than 62 per cent said the current Parts 1, 2 and 3 system should be scrapped, effectively supporting the RIBA’s plans to shorten the course and scrap Part 3 – which were backed by councillors earlier this year (see AJ 25.03.25).

The RIBA’s proposals include an integrated course, options for work-based learning and the possibility of immediate inclusion on the architects’ register as soon as a student graduates.  

One respondent, Thomas Moore, a Part 2 student at  The Bartlett said: ‘Too much time in third year [Part 1] is wasted on preparing an exhibition of “final” drawings. The three years could be shortened to two with an emphasis on experimentation and accumulation of knowledge rather than communicating.’

Another questioned the usefulness of the usual 12 months in practice between Parts 1 and 2. ‘Most Part 1 year-out students spend a year learning nothing but toilet details,’ the student said. ‘What a waste of a year.’

Other comments:

Andrew Crompton, head of Liverpool School of Architecture:
‘Look at it from a global perspective. We are just waking up to what the rest of the world already knows; proper education is very expensive.All the same, it is better to get a degree than an apprenticeship.

‘Students who say practices have a responsibility to educate them have not thought through the bargain they are making. They will pay in servitude to be trained to serve. My advice: Try an established school of architecture outside London where you can live cheaply. Then go to China.’


Harriet Harriss, the Royal College of Art:
‘It’s quite understandable that so many students perceive that architectural education doesn’t represent value for money. It costs a fortune and starting salaries are low.  The question remains as to why so many young people still choose it - a fact that props up many schools complacency over taking a more proactive position. However the debt implications do weigh heavily on the consciences of most educators. But it’s a question of what a value really means. After all, it  arguably offers the most discipline diverse, rigorous and tutor engaged undergraduate program available - offering an outstanding foundation for life, regardless of  final career destination. On a monetary level, the Bologna-fuelled curtailing of architectural education will mean students qualify in a shorter window of time, thereby reducing the cost of their ed. 

‘But on a practical level, what will also happen is that schools will need to soak up more of the professional training experience normally the responsibility of practices, in order to meet the demand to graduate architects at the former part 2 threshold. This may further exacerbate the students concern that they are not  made ready for practice by their education - or instead  - the more innovative schools and practices will  seize the opportunity to set up and offer progressive and dynamic new models of learning, most likely based upon greater reciprocity between both learning environments.

‘The bottom line is that both schools and practices need to work together to generate these solutions, and this means an end to the tired old partitions and stone throwing. Students too need to take their political position seriously - by lobbying schools,  interrogating practices and also self-organising their own curriculum desires and new practice models. 

The simple truth is that none of us can afford - monetarily or otherwise - to be anything other than positively proactive about responsible change. 


Readers' comments (2)

  • My apologies for its length but this piece published in 1992 might throw some light on it.. Bryan Avery


    In recent contributions to the education debate we have been constantly reassured that “design” and the “holistic” approach is the only armature around which the curriculum can be wound. One can understand the nervousness. It is this that attracted the educationalists into teaching and it is with the promise of design that they attract students to the schools.

    The question is, are they right? Do they really understand the nature of the design skills they extol or is their self-interest clouding their judgement and preventing them from seeing that what they are promulgating is an attitude deeply damaging to us all?

    For five years students are taught to develop their understanding of architecture almost exclusively through a process of increasingly complex theoretical design studies, in which the aim is to define first the personal philosophy and then to provide the detail to substantiate it. Design is thus more than mere problem-solving, planning, shaping details or even structuring spaces; design has been saturated with a creative imperative; to search for a conceptual framework, a complete understanding, a holy grail of architectural coherence without which we cannot hope to practice.

    The normal preoccupations of a designer in practice, how the project works for the client, its efficiency, constructability and cost, ironically the very elements which in life will so often help formulate the concept and toughen it against criticism, have within the schools been relegated to peripheral issues within the conceptual debate. Deprived therefore of the conditions which can prompt original thought, the students are left to experiment by themselves with other people’s concepts, to paste them to their projects and to learn only by their mistakes.

    Inevitably, as few students are required ever to prove the validity of their concepts against practice criteria, they have become increasingly dependent upon their tutors’ interpolations for evidence of their practicability, such that it has become virtually impossible for practitioners, still less lay adjudicators, to criticise their work.

    The students are left in no doubt that the creative imperative is uppermost in the schools’ concerns. They witness the vying for critical attention and end of year acclaim, and it will not have escaped notice either that the more striking the concept and the more obfuscating the presentations, the less the need to substantiate it. We are not training practitioners. We are training artists. The educationalists argue that practicality doesn’t matter at this stage, that this can be picked up in practice, but if we are so determined to train artists, doesn’t every artist need first to master his materials and to have competent technique?

    It should be no surprise then that so many fail the system. We have 8,300 students in full-time education at 36 schools, generating a potential average annual throughput of 1,660 architects. Of these, only 900 ever reach part II and 800 part III, these also including part timers.

    The wastage is unforgivable but it’s not entirely the fault of the schools, for as long as we insist upon the democratic right to an education for us all in any subject of our choice, and for as long as the architectural course is perceived as attractive, so will the intake be ungovernable. The fact that architecture is also a vocation, with a cyclical and limited capacity for employment, appears to have been ignored. In the depths of a recession, we are training more students than ever before.

    The effect of this is that we have come to accept that half the student intake will be trained as if to practise but will never practise, and this primarily because after five years they will have been judged, or will have judged themselves to be, incapable of, or unlikely ever to, design. This may be no bad thing. We could argue that the attrition retains therefore only the best, but there is little evidence of this having improved the general quality of design, despite there being more architects per capita here than in most other comparable countries.

    The problem is not, then, one of numbers, but the fact that the design skills we are trying to teach and validate are not those which can be taught, i.e. the pragmatic skills, but the conceptual and creative skills that we venerate in the artist-architect and which ultimately cannot be fostered except in those who have the talent.

    The futility of this is self-evident. Talent originates by some immutable law of nature and all that one can do is to recognise it and to help it flourish. Why construct an educational system around this if, when you ask any school how many talents it is discovering or how many will survive to become influential in practice, the answer will always be embarrassing?

    Again, it should come as no surprise. We are currently enjoying a millennial high point in British architecture. We are basking in the reflected glory of at least three architectural practices of world stature. Not since the days of Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh have we had such a surfeit of talent and not since the 19th century has the world come to pay homage to an “English style”.

    If we were to extrapolate from these three very successful practices on the basis of our population, then we would expect also three of similar stature from France, four from Germany, six from Japan and 12 from the US. (India and China would have the hopeless task of providing 39 and 59 respectively). Clearly on this basis we are doing quite extraordinarily well so is this not proof enough of the success of the system?

    Perhaps; it depends upon your view of worth; whether the achievements of the few outweigh the mediocrity of the many, for there are 29,700 architects registered in the UK today. In a good year, maybe 22,000 are in full-time employment. Suppose we broaden our criteria and try to list 50 practices still pursuing the colleges’ creative imperative; practices which may not be internationally influential, but which nevertheless enjoy a national significance in pursuance of the art of architecture. If these 50 were of the national average practice size of 3.6 architects and, unlikely though it is, all within them were designers, and all had been trained in the UK, then we could still claim only to have produced no more than 200 top-flight creative designers, less than 1 per cent of all architects.

    If we were then to broaden our criteria still further to accept practices achieving a local or regional significance, or even to include individuals within other practices whose contribution may only be episodic, then we might treble or quadruple the numbers - it doesn’t matter, for the percentages remain statistically negligible.

    Now the remaining 21,800 or whatever figure we arrive at, may not be top flight but they are nevertheless architects and they are presumed necessary to the process of producing buildings. Even so, few will ever have the opportunity to design and this only for a fraction of their time, so why then do we still insist upon this necessity for us all to be creative?

    Consider it from the student’s perspective. Lured into architecture by the glamour of design, they spend five years of their lives in a glorious delirium of self-expression, and emerge convinced of their capabilities into a world where suddenly their skills are revealed as superfluous. Very few of the established creative practices will offer a haven for philosophies which run counter to their own, and the rest have need only for efficient technical and administrative support, skills which the students are hardly aware of and still less prepared for.

    Is it any wonder then that a rapid disillusionment sets in, followed by a sense of helplessness, inadequacy and frustration? Trapped by their long investment, they now have no choice. After another five years of role-searching some find their feet again and rise to positions of authority quite unconnected with their training, but many succumb, the memory of the primacy given to creativity at school, not now required, tainting everything else with the second best.

    The sadness is that the formative years have convinced us all that an architect who is not also a conceptually creative force is not a complete architect. Every week in every journal, the creativity of the few is portrayed as the impossible standard against which all architect’s work must ultimately be judged. Those ordinary competencies which otherwise might have given us pleasure are turned against us, as we view them only as opportunities which have been missed and therefore as failures.

    It is not surprising, with so few achieving works of perceived worth, that the rest of us can only look with envy at their achievements and when the opportunity arises to build we feel compelled to try our hand, to forego all objectivity and humility and to live again the student dream. If the pretentious mediocrity of our post-war building stock is not evidence enough of the frustrated artist-architect at work, ask if this is nonetheless fulfilling and the despair will quickly surface.

    It is hardly to be wondered at, for in the same way that the schools degrade the pragmatic skills, they refuse also to recognise that there is a difference in life between a patron and a client. Fearful of being thought dull, all but a few schools continue to eschew pragmatic briefs, the generality of design experience, in favour of projects in which a high level of patronage must be assumed to exist. The students develop their design experience and their understanding of architecture almost exclusively on special cases; building types which in practice are more usually the prerogative of the few are used by schools to train the many. The result is again a disillusionment when confronted by the practice reality and a need therefore to translate the ordinary into a special case before it may justify our attentions.

    We are happy to deceive ourselves in this because we are taught that a good architect should be able to produce good architecture under any circumstances, and that we should give every client something more than he ever dreamed possible; in short, however unwittingly, we try ardently to transform every client into the patron of our dreams. Unfortunately, very few clients are patrons and most would abhor the presumption. So there should be little surprise that just as many clients feel disadvantaged by their architect’s attitude as architects feel disappointed by their client’s indifference.

    It wasn’t always like this. Until the 19th century, an architect was engaged only, as in Pevsner’s famous phrase, “for buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal”. There was little ambiguity and cause for confusion. The architect was concerned with conceptual creativity and others undertook the task of building design. It evolved as a self-regulating system of apprenticeship, and it kept architects in pace with their patronage.

    The balance was upset with the institutionalisation of the architect’s education, when the universities and colleges began training architects in quantity and in numbers quite unrelated to the patronage that society could afford. Nevertheless, they continued to train all in the older model and always with a view to “aesthetic appeal”. The difficulty was that the newly qualified all needed employment and they could not survive economically unless the patronage itself could be extended.

    To some extent this happened. The social building cycle of the inter-war and post-war years extended patronage into the public domain, often with architects themselves taking the role of patron as heads of construction departments. Arguing that it was in the public interest to raise standards, we sought actively to create patronage where none had existed, until soon we could claim that everything must be designed for aesthetic appeal and therefore was in need of our service.

    The trouble is, not everything does need our service; not that everything should not be better designed, but that it doesn’t always warrant the attention of an artist and certainly not of the artist-architect manqué. There is a case for ordinariness and basic competencies which we fail in our education to provide, and it is precisely because we fail to distinguish between the client and the patron, that we find ourselves in such a crisis of identity today.

    An attempt was made to resolve this by redefining ourselves collectively as professionals. The Battle of the Styles and the Beaux Arts training made academicism directly relevent to design so we became an association of members sharing a common vocation based on a course of advanced learning. Aesthetics and morality were suitable subjects for learned discourse, and architecture could therefore be readily linked in spirit with the older learned professions of law, theology and medicine.

    Unfortunately, this has only lead to a further confusion. The training of architects, once formulated as an academic discipline, meant that the institutions had to set universal standards and levels of attainment which could be invigilated so that all who mastered the curriculum could then be deemed architects. This was arguably manageable as long as the criteria for judgement were rooted in an academic discipline but, by the turn of the century, this was already proving too difficult to sustain. The modern movement in art and architecture first challenged the academic base and then destroyed it. Architecture became a personal exploration of material and form and ultimately sought a self-expression of character and feeling. Whereas the other professions could still justifiably regard themselves as associations based upon an evolving heritage of advanced learning, architecture, for architects at least, became instead an art.

    The difficulty with art, or more accurately modern art, is that is has no structure capable of a useful academic evaluation until after the event, because the artist is thought of as a free spirit directed by inner drives and motivations and his work is often the more praised, the more it appears anarchic and subversive of current mores. The artist-architects is thus profoundly unprofessional.

    Herein lies a further problem. We originally constructed a learned society to develop and to protect our interests and we called ourselves professionals. We enhanced this with a 19th century notion of fair play and of gentlemanly conduct by asserting in our codes that we would be independent of judgement and could therefore be trusted as an arbiter between the vested interests of the client and contractor. Yet all along, despite carefully distancing ourselves from payment upon performance by means of the percentage fee, we are still in the pocket of one or other of these two parties, neither of whom now can trust our impartiality because we have too many vested interests of our own. Our inner hope, our secret need, is ultimately to be artists.

    Is it any wonder, then, that our professionalism is always under scrutiny and that we appear to clients to be happy to work for nothing? For as long as the schools encourage us in the self-image of solitary and noble sacrifice, with an obligation of service to society, to posterity and to art, then the challenge of efficiently deploying and galvanising into action vast human and technical resources in the resolution of complex fiscal and logistical demands will ever be seen as central to the dream. Thus managerial and leadership skills will rarely be taught. Is it any wonder that we are losing to others the leadership of the construction processes?

    None of this would matter, perhaps, if were still essential to these processes, but that cannot now be guaranteed. We have no monopoly on design services, no secret art to fall back on, and society is no longer of a mind to trust our judgement. We may find that, without the mandatory fee scale to protect us, we cannot even afford the indulgence of our art.

    In both small works and refurbishments, the mainstay of 80 per cent of our practices but the very work which the schools so patently ignore, we are in competition with other disciplines and fighting for our livelihoods. Meanwhile clients are still systematically withdrawing from us our control and management responsibilities and turning instead to others to control us and to impart to the building process the dispassionate application of skills that we seem unable to deploy for ourselves.

    It should be no surprise, for after five years in a conceptual enchantment it comes hard to concentrate upon the nett to gross. Perhaps we should just accept that we are inherently ill-suited for the rigours of the architectural middle ground. Maybe we should abandon it, cut the student intake and then carp comfortably at mediocrity. If we were determined to produce only the best, we could fight our cause more confidently and try again to regenerate the patronage with which to sustain it. The schools could do this. They could provide for their alumni their patrons too. Instead of failing half of them on the creative impediment, this vast wastage with an interest in architecture could be turned to good account. They could be offered instead a rounded cultural background based on the mother subject of the arts and trained thereafter for positions in business and politics from within which they might one day help to secure recognition of the worth of our artistry.

    Alternatively, if we felt uncomfortable with this decimation of our numbers, we could try again to formulate an educational procedure which would better balance the needs of the pragmatists and artists, the clients and patrons. We would need first, though, to abandon the creative imperative and to reverse the educational process, working up from pragmatics to embrace theory later.

    A degree course in general practice could qualify us all, after an apprenticeship in practice, to administer a contract, run a practice and to design and detail small woks and refurbishments, simply, economically and well. If we achieved only this we would improve our position immeasurably and bring back some basic satisfactions into our lives. The skills of the general practitioner are the mainstay upon which we depend. Eighty per cent of practices have less than ten people and half of those are one-and two-man bands. They are the ones who need our help most. If we nonetheless felt this to be too prosaic a process and too off-putting to the few, then a periodic one-day or one-week creative design esquisse might balance the burden and permit a talent still to shine.

    Those wishing to advance further, intending perhaps to join one of the larger practices or to concentrate upon the development of a particular talent, would need assistance then from post-graduate centres of excellence open to all qualified practitioners, whatever their age. These courses would aim to provide us with skilled specialists, the managers and administrators, the technologists and detailers, the renderers and presenters, the brief writers and building code unravellers, the cost experts and job getters, in short for all those tasks which already take up all but a fraction of our time and for which we are currently fitted only inadequately and resentfully by experience alone; we should create new centres of excellence whose alumni would re-enter architecture with skills at least as advanced as those in practice, skills that are valued and that we could therefore take pride in deploying. Above all, we should train these people to lead and to take over the responsibilities for the entire building process. Therein we may regain the initiative.

    We would need specialised courses for the designers too. Perhaps in the form of a two stage postgraduate structure introducing general practitioners first to the problem of planning larger-scale buildings, resolving their technical and logistical complexities within an understanding of the formal disciplines. Then, and only then, where the aptitude for the innovative inspiration has been evidenced, to graduate from the pragmatic to the special course structures that would encourage the exploration of new aesthetic theories.

    Given the background and the build-up of competencies required before admission to any of the courses, the students would graduate as specialists or consultants in their own right and their stature would warrant a wider recognition.

    We may wish to retain the RIBA to be representative of the collective interest, but it may be necessary also to create separate institutions to be representative of each of the architectural specialisms wherein we might reinstate a pride in our individual contribution to the design process, and thereby put an end to the debilitating rancour that the educationalists have been content to encourage - that we have failed as architects simply because we cannot or do not design.

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  • Perhaps the next student survey could include the question, -

    Do you feel you were led to believe you would be ready to practice when you graduated?

    Perhaps Universities could be asked if they would be prepared to state on the open day that the course does not necessarily prepare you to practice upon graduation.

    Perhaps the ARB should be asked why it ( as a professional governing body) is prepared to accredit schools of Architecture it doesn't feel are turning out people who are ready for practice.

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