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The Diary of an Anonymous Academic #1

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The first in a new series about the unreported trials and tribulations from the frontline of architectural education. This week: new entry

I want to be the second greatest architect in Lincolnshire.  – student applicant

Every year, hundreds of hopeful candidates eagerly apply for a place on the architecture course at our school. We go through every single one. These hopefuls may well be building in the very near future. Their architectural career begins on an academic’s messy desk.

The recent fall in UCAS application numbers for architecture due to the rise in university fees has been widely publicised.

However, this figure is peripheral to the bigger picture. From all these applications, only half are given offers. Just a percentage of these are converted to enrolled students for the start of the year. Each university course has its own conversion rate reflecting their success at self-promotion. I’d hate to disclose ours.

It’s cringe-worthy what lengths some schools go to

Our attempts at improving this rate sometimes makes us feel more like PR people than academics. But we need students and good ones at that. I regularly attend the annual University fairs where every art & design faculty in the country sets up a stall to demonstrate their individuality and creative flair. It is cringe-worthy what lengths some schools go to; the worst was handing out temporary tattoos of the university logo. As if any trendy 18 year old would go for that. Hold on, what’s this? A queue? Oh dear.

There are hidden benefits to these events. The conversations that you have on the subject of architecture are useful (in an anecdotal way) for assessing public perception, for lecture writing and for office banter.

One young hopeful approached me to me to ask: ‘Architecture. Is that about buildings?’ I reply with a simple yes. I quickly take a note of his name just in case he follows his interest in us.

The Channel 4 hit show Grand Designs has a lot to answer for. A significant proportion of the UCAS applications have a personal statement explaining with no sense of irony how they decided to become an architect after watching the programme. The show engages the viewer in a passive experience of architecture without any meaningful reflection on the complexity of the subject. Fans of the show are bound to get a nasty shock should they be accepted onto the course.

The Channel 4 hit show Grand Designs has a lot to answer for

We should be pleased though right? The show has definitely brought the subject into the mainstream media for some time now and we have all benefited from this popularity. But as the recent headlines suggest, today even Kevin McCloud can’t stop the applications drop.

On the subject of too many architects, the finger is often pointed towards the RIBA. In reality, it is higher education institutions where the future architecture professionals are selected, because of decisions made based on a number of financial as well as academic factors. Further to this, the institutions are tied to targets fixed by HEFCE, an after effect of New Labour.  

It is disconcerting to suggest we may need to take on students to fill this quota. Are we to just recruit those who we are certain to succeed? Only 40-50 per cent of first year students ‘succeed’ to become chartered architects. I am not one of them. Clearly success is not so easily defined.

Our course team recently had a meeting to discuss what our approach should be to the incoming KIS - a government initiative set out as a response to the effects of the new fees on application numbers. We left the meeting room content with the clarification of how to calculate the KIS data. We also left worried on how this will affect our recruitment.  

I worry that KIS will show us up

KIS stands for Key Information Sets a comparable set of information on all undergraduate courses for prospective students to view before making their choice.

Most of my fellow colleagues agree that it helps us be more transparent in our success. I worry that it will show us up.

Apparently, KIS will make it easier for prospective students to select the right course. I predict it will become more about looking for value for money, just like a price comparison site. Cue meerkat and mortar board.

Another thought crosses my mind; I wonder if other schools of architecture are having the same conversations about KIS as us. See, we always try to play the tactical game – get one over our competitors. It’s tricky though as we ambitiously aim higher to compete against the big guns - the schools with all the clever kids. Now, how can we get us some more of those? 

1. https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/ucas-architecture-applications-fall-by-172/8624463.article


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