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Backlash after RIBA moots membership fees for students


Students and industry leaders have spoken out after it emerged the RIBA was considering slapping students with fees of up to £144 per year

Free student membership was introduced in 2004 by then-president George Ferguson. He warned that the move, proposed as an option in an online survey launched by the RIBA, could cost the body thousands of members and damage the wider profession. 

RIBA National Council student representative Simeon Shtebunaev described the poll as ‘undercooked’, calling for a much wider debate before charges were reintroduced.

And UWE Bristol Architecture Society president Suleiman Al-Sa’di said the ‘incredibly infuriating’ questionnaire would reduce the diversity of the profession.

The survey was sent to all student members earlier this month, incentivised with the chance to win £250 in book vouchers.

After listing extra benefits that could be added to student membership (see below), the poll asked respondents to choose annual fee levels they would consider too cheap, too expensive and ‘a bit expensive’.

It then asked at what level the fee would represent great value for money. For all these questions the lowest box that could be ticked was £16 with the highest £144. A box also existed for ‘other’.

As well as handing out the survey, the RIBA appears to have been holding meetings with students over the potential introduction of fees.

Al-Sa’di, who is in his third year of architecture and planning studies at UWE Bristol, told the AJ: ‘RIBA ran a focus group with our students on Friday 5 April, which was aimed at trying to understand what fee students would be willing to pay for membership.

‘This was followed by a survey which was incredibly infuriating as it was pretty much designed to get students to agree a fee that would be palatable for them to pay.’

He said any introduction of charges for student membership would be ‘wrong on many levels’.

’The issue of pricing out certain groups of students and reducing inclusivity is only going to be exasperated by the fee,’ he warned. 

‘There has been much importance on widening access into the profession, and at university we can see far more diverse groups of students than represented in the profession.’

He added that fees could drive non-qualified architects away from the body.

’I genuinely don’t think students would pay for membership. Many of the benefits cited by the RIBA are also provided by universities anyway.’

Shtebunaev said the RIBA had agreed at the end of last year to develop a Future Architects Network to better support student, graduate and newly qualified architects. A paper approved by the institute’s council in December described current ‘disjointed transition’ between student, associate, affiliate and chartered member status.

Despite this change, which he described as much-needed, Shtebunaev said he was of the clear opinion that RIBA student membership should remain free.

‘If the institute does want to charge, there needs to be a full consultation that includes all members, not just an undercooked survey of students and associates,’ he added.

Ferguson, who abolished student membership fees when at the helm in 2004, expressed surprise at the consideration of overturning his ‘progressive’ decision.

‘The RIBA is on a strong financial footing and needs to think about the long-term rather than the short-term,’ he said.

‘If fees are introduced, the RIBA will lose large numbers – membership went up by about 10,000 almost instantly when I dropped them.’

He said the money was more critical to the students than the institute, yet both parties would lose out if fewer young architects joined. 

‘I remember that four pints of beer was more important to me as a student than membership of a professional institute,’ said Ferguson.

The Architecture Students Network discussed the contentious survey at a recent meeting. 

’It was definitely a resoundingly negative reaction to RIBA’s suggestion of charging for student membership,’ said network co-ordinator Olivia Marshall. ‘It gives the impression that RIBA is trying to exclude students who have insufficient funds and therefore making this career choice more elitist.’

Marshall, a masters student at the Manchester School of Architecture, added: ‘I am not in support of anything that discriminates against students from poorer backgrounds [who] could become discouraged from joining the profession due to the length and cost involved with qualifying.’  

Currently around 12,000 architecture students are members of the RIBA. Anyone on an RIBA-recognised Part 1 or Part 2 course or undertaking a Part 1 professional practice year is entitled to free membership.

The institute’s website says benefits include access to a members information service to answer practical or technical queries; weekly published content ‘packed with practical advice’; and discounted entry to talks and events.

An RIBA spokesperson said the body’s council would have the final say on any change to membership pricing.

’We use surveys to ensure our members have an opportunity to express their views on a variety of issues, and to help develop products and services that meet the needs of our membership,’ said the spokesperson.

’The questions related to student fees have been designed to understand the value these members place on the current membership offer and member benefits we might offer in the future. We are complementing this quantitative survey with further qualitative research including focus groups.’

Six benefits the RIBA has said could be added to student RIBA membership to justify the mooted fee:

  • Digital-only RIBAJ subscription
  • RIBA PEDR subscription to record professional experience
  • Learning through a digital CPD programme
  • Weekly social event featuring a live magazine show
  • Access to core RIBA publications online
  • Technical guidance and tools 

Readers' comments (3)

  • This proposal is incredibily short sighted. If students are already members they are far more likely to stay and pay a membership fee once they are qualified. They can bring energy and fresh ideas to an organisation that requires both to remain relevant to the profession. The RIBA needs them more than they need it.

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  • Chris Roche

    Yet another poorly conceived PR disaster from RIBA. The institute should be looking to nurture and support students not for students to be supporting RIBA financially.

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  • A short sited idea that will already hurt a dwindling membership. Instead of these ideas the RIBA should be finding ways to give students the opportunity to do projects and teach at home and overseas , in projects of charitable nature or working with institutions who want to a lifeline to societies. Only by showing students that their profession is a cause for good and change will RIBA gain student support. Integrate students more I say , give them opportunity and the excitement that can come from architecture!

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