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Abolition of tuition fees would be 'positive U-turn' for students' mental health

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Leading architecture tutors and students have praised Labour’s pledge to scrap university tuition fees, saying it would improve students’ mental health 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn promised yesterday (22 May) that, if his party wins the general election, it would abolish tuition fees for students starting this September. For students already part-way through their studies, their fees would be scrapped from 2018.

Harriet Harriss, senior tutor in interior design and architecture at the Royal College of Art, said Labour’s pledge to get rid of university tuition fees would be a ‘positive U-turn on the mental crisis facing architecture education’.

Last year an AJ survey of architecture students uncovered a worrying landscape of stress-related illness, with just over a quarter (26 per cent) of respondents recording that they were receiving or had received medical help for mental health problems.

Harriss said that the need for some students to get a job alongside their studies, in order to meet their fees and living expenses was ‘making their lives impossible in terms of stress because they don’t get any time off’. 

She added that abolishing tuition fees would allow people from poorer backgrounds to access architecture education.

She said: ‘We need a diverse architectural profession and the only way we can do that is through having a diverse educational system. Architecture should serve the interests of everyone in society, but it can’t do that if its professional members are not diverse.’

In England, students currently have to pay up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. In 2012, the Coalition government controversially tripled tuition fees to £9,000 a year following the 2010 Browne Review.

Nam Kha Tran, a Part 2 architecture student at the University of Sheffield, said he welcomed the pledge to abolish tuition fees.

He said: ‘The knock-on effect of students needing extra financial support, whether this be through employment alongside studies or increased borrowing … as well as the increase in the cost of living pervades all current issues, including mental health and wellbeing.

‘We need a government prepared to fundamentally question the value we place on education. A vote for the Conservatives furthers the discussion of education as an economy, rather than a right for all and maintains a system that traps many but suits few.’

Tuition fees were originally introduced in UK universities under the Labour government in 1998, when students were required to pay up to £1,000 a year for their education. In 2004, these fees were increased to up to £3,000 a year for students in England. 

Joe Brennan, a Part 2 architecture student at the Royal College of Art, said scrapping tuition fees would ‘allow people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go into architecture’. 

He added: ‘There’s a lot of people at the RCA who also work part-time, which inevitably results in stress and anxiety. Architecture is famous for being an intense, long and expensive course, so the added expenditure is always a burden.’

I had to take up a part-time job. It has put on a lot of pressure on me

He added: ‘From personal experience this year –my final year and the year where you’re most needed to work all the time – I had to take up a part-time job. It has put on a lot of pressure on me.’

Kevin Singh, director of the Birmingham School of Architecture and Design, also said he backed Labour’s manifesto pledge.

He said: ‘Education is a right, not a privilege,’ adding that, while there was ‘some evidence that students are taking their studies even more seriously in the full fee regime’, scrapping fees would ‘further the cause for a more diverse profession, which needs to reflect modern society more closely’.

In terms of whether Labour would be able to implement its pledge, he said: ‘I’d ask whether the country can afford not to. Education is the basis of any thriving economy and society.’

Harriss said she believed Labour could afford to abolish tuition fees, and this was shown by the calculations published in its manifesto. 

‘It’s a question of priority,’ she said. ‘We’re allowing ourselves to be conditioned into thinking the only way to pay off debt and progress our society is to kill the welfare state, including the NHS and education.’

She added: ‘Other countries in Europe that do not have such stringent austerity measures are actually recovering at a faster rate than we are.’

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