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System meltdown

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No subject has been higher up the agenda this year than education.Ed Dorrell looks at some of the themes from the last 12 months and questions whether the necessary answers are out there

Has there ever been such an appalling and shocking year for architectural education as 2004? If there has, no one on the AJ can remember it.

What made the last 12 months even worse was that it followed 2003, another year that threw academics and students into disarray with the government's decision to introduce a highly controversial fee system.

In the last year the most prominent education stories in the architectural press came in the form of two schools threatened with closure - namely those at the University of Cambridge and the University of Central England (UCE).

But why have these schools reached crisis point, and why are so many sages warning that unless something is done fast, the pattern will repeat itself all over the country? Perhaps ironically, the schools that have been placed together in intensive care have two very different reasons for their current predicament.

The main excuse that Cambridge gives for its decision to do away with its architecture provision is that the school failed to achieve the top five-star rating in the government's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). While this 'problem' will have put a serious dent in the school's accounts, there is a widespread perception that Cambridge's bigwigs didn't want to be associated with any 'less than perfect' department.

Many pessimists have, however, warned that the RAE problem will extend to architectural education in general. It has been widely discussed that the existing system simply does not have the capacity to understand the successes and failures of architectural research and will, therefore, inevitably mark schools lower than, say, their engineering counterparts.

The blame game While Cambridge was busy blaming the RAE for its predicament, the UCE's vicechancellor produced a report on the staggering 93 per cent failure rate that appeared to blame everyone but those - ahem - in the vice-chancellor's department. However, one of the most depressingly predictable issues to take the blame was the over-regulation of the current dual prescription system set up by the RIBA and the ARB.

Although it may not be enough to remove all the problems of architectural education, it is undeniably true that most schools around the country would breathe a very big sigh of relief if even a small part of this bureaucratic burden was alleviated.

What the two very different schools have in common is that both observers and those working in them perceive a lack of support from their superiors and university authorities. Could it be that the business-oriented bosses that attempt to run higher education in Britain are losing faith in the subject?

So what can be done to stem the tide? This year saw the publication of a new document, the Delft Declaration, one that may yet be seen as a landmark in the history of architectural education.

The declaration, which was made in May by the heads of schools organisation SCHOSA, effectively demands the abandonment of the established Parts 1/2/3 and year-out structure, and its replacement with a more fluid system that allows for educational freedom. It calls for 'professional competence' to be 'established at a single point of architectural registration with no prescribed intermediate qualifications'.

If the RIBA, the ARB, the government and the universities themselves adopted this reform, the new system would allow for students to take any combination of practice-based training and university courses.

But will this document really rescue education from the brink? While Delft seemed a worthy, and to some radical, jump from the status quo, those who backed its sentiments have been suspiciously quiet since. If the declaration is to have any significant impact, those behind it need to make their voices heard before it is written off as a false dawn.

While the organisation of architectural education is certainly going to need reform, there are others that insist there are deeper and more philosophical issues that needs to be looked at. Many believe that the perennial debate between the practical and conceptual academic strands should be resolved to ease the burden of regulation on the system.

There are, it would seem, a series of practical measures that might be put in place to counter the desperate situation. However, these would, in large part, be short-term measures that would, in the long term, only successfully put off other far greater and more significant decisions that need resolution.

Thankfully, architectural educationalists seem increasingly prepared to 'think outside the box' - which is exactly what needs to happen. Architecture's great and good must either accept that tinkering is simply insufficient or prepare themselves to see the crises at UCE and Cambridge repeating themselves on a frighteningly regular basis.

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