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
More from: Revealed: The AJ student survey results 2015
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.’
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.’
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.