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Departing Bartlett dean promises no-fee places to less affluent students


Bartlett dean Alan Penn has pledged to provide a number of free places at the innovative London architecture school in response to the mounting student debt problem 

Penn is set to step down next year as dean of UCL’s Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment following two five-year terms in the role, the maximum allowed by the university.

Speaking to the AJ about the changes in architectural education during his 10-year tenure, Penn said the onerous level of fees had become a major issue for the ‘now mainly middle-class’ student intake.

Penn, who will stay with the school, said: ‘In terms of student fees we are close to crisis point. Architecture students, especially those in London, are coming out with around £100,000 of debt after five years. And architecture isn’t a well-paid profession.’

’Over the last 30 years the profession has become middle-class and well-to-do. And if we have only [the affluent] designing for the rest of us, then we have a problem.

’But it didn’t use to be like that’.

He added: ’For the future we need to ensure that the professionals and researchers we educate have an understanding of their responsibilities to the public at large and future generations, and truly reflect the diversity of the population for whom we plan and build.

He said that, from 2020, the school would make good the ‘Bartlett Promise’, whereby a percentage of student places would be offered for zero fee and with a living stipend.

Penn added: ’This Bartlett Promise is tremendously exciting and hopefully it will attract groups of people who could not otherwise afford this kind of education. We’d also offer support during their time at university and with their subsequent careers as many won’t have the same network as middle-class students.’  

Tomorrow’s architects need to truly reflect the diversity of the population for whom we plan and build

Penn said the school had also got approval for a new combined Part I and 2 four-year course with a year in practice, which should shorten the time sent paying for university education. That course could start in about 18 months and, said Penn, has already attracted interest from industry.    

He said the Bartlett was also investigating apprenticeship programmes, though he admitted this was a complex process and that the school was ‘working through it’. 

Other measures aimed at addressing the lack of diversity within the profession included a new architecture programme for the visually impaired.

Another change witnessed by Penn over the past few years was the shift in the definition of ’what it is to be an architect’. He said: ’An architect now is really being about having the ideas and investigating the possibilities of the future. It is about being visionary.

’The role of the architect has been chopped away at. But these are the things that can be done by bots. So it is, ultimately, the high-level thinking architects do – it is what humans can do, rather than computers.’ 

Speaking about whether the school prepared students for practice, he said: ’In terms of being oven-ready, the question is: do you want McCains Chips or triple-fried chips?

’Others can teach the transactional, low end of the market, work which will eventually go to the bots. But that would be completely the wrong strategy for us as a research-led, London-based school. We have to go for the high end.’ 

During his 10 years at the helm, Penn directed the Bartlett Faculty through organisational change, transforming it into a faculty of 13 schools and institutes which, he said, are ‘deeply engaged with developing new thinking about the built environment in the 21st century’.

In that time, the Bartlett’s study programme has doubled, from 36 to 77 different programmes and now it has more than 3,000 students on its roster.

The faculty’s income has also grown five-fold, while its staff numbers have gone up more than six times. To accommodate this growth, Penn oversaw the redevelopment of the Bartlett estate, which has grown from 5,500m² to 14,000m², including the refurbishment of 22 Gordon Street by Hawkins\Brown and the launch of the Here East facility on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Hawkinsbrown, ucl at here east, c.tim crocker (4)

Hawkinsbrown, ucl at here east, c.tim crocker (4)

Source: Tim Crocker

Penn will return to The Bartlett, following a year’s sabbatical, to continue his work as professor in architectural and urban computing in the school’s Space Syntax Laboratory, where his research will focus on understanding the way that the design of the built environment affects the patterns of social and economic behaviour of organisations and communities.

David Price, vice-provost of research at UCL, said: ’Being dean of The Bartlett is a truly unique role. In recent times, The Bartlett has grown to become the most comprehensive built environment faculty in the UK, recognised worldwide for the quality of its research, teaching and external engagement. It has the capacity to profoundly shape the way people around the world perceive and interact with the built environment.’

Price added: ’Over the past decade, Penn has set a high bar for his successor. His clarity of vision, his deep connection to UCL’s founding values and radical tradition, and his nimbleness in the face of challenges and opportunities have guided The Bartlett through a complex decade of transformational growth.

Penn has inspired UCL to be more than the sum of its parts

’He has encouraged and enabled his faculty colleagues to fulfil their potential. His commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration – within the faculty, across UCL and beyond our university – has inspired UCL to be more than the sum of its parts.’

The search for his successor has already begun.

The new dean, who will take up their position in September 2019, will drive forward key objectives including the establishment of a UCL Energy Impact Accelerator programme and encourage cross-disciplinary practice, especially at Here East.

More information about the role and how to apply can be found at ucl.ac.uk/hr/jobs (job reference number 1769192)


Readers' comments (5)

  • Clare Richards

    Alan Penn will be leaving an admirable legacy, but on tackling the lack of diversity within architecture schools and the profession there is still much to be done. As a mentor with the Social Mobility Foundation, supporting young people who for one reason or another would not otherwise opt to study architecture, I am aware of some fundamental obstacles. All four I have worked with have lacked the right A’levels, having had no continuity or advice as they moved from GCSEs into six forms. On that basis alone, without a mentor they would have rejected architecture outright. Nor had any of their teachers had a clue about studying architecture (in fact some had simply told students that it takes years and the pay is crap at the end of it). Then there are the entry requirements. UCL as a whole leads the way on widening participation, which at least enabled 2 of my mentees to apply there (in fact I myself was accepted there after a previous career and without qualifications in maths or physics). Elsewhere, though, bright students are reduced to applying for poorly-rated courses (if at all), because the good schools will not consider them on the basis of their projected grades. Apprenticeship schemes are a great idea – indeed some very well-established architects entered the profession through that route. However the recently validated schemes have precisely the same entry requirements as the standard degree courses. Surely that defeats the purpose? It is of course a huge advantage to receive a salary instead of paying fees, and I applaud the idea of Bartlett Scholarships, but unless these other points are addressed I cannot see how these schemes will achieve the aim of creating a more diverse profession.

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  • Industry Professional

    Fees are a red herring. You don’t feel the financial impact of the £9000 until you leave and start repaying – although yes this weighs on you psychologically. The biggest costs I encountered when I was at the Bartlett were the extortionate sums I had to shell out for models, printing, software and study trips to ridiculously expensive locations abroad. The costs of gaining your degree and masters are bad across the board but is particularly bad at the London schools as they are driven to stay on top, the best, the most cutting edge. I worked part time alongside my studies but struggled to keep up financially and faced harsh criticism from tutors for not producing models using the most beautiful materials. Time and again tutors told me to ask my parents for money- many were shocked that this wasn’t an option for me. Schools need to get real about how much it costs to complete your studies and start providing services like free printing, free laser cutting and free study trips. UCL is a hugely wealthy institution. It could afford it. The final point of study trips was a particularly sore point for me as they plunged me massively into debt at the start of the uni year. The worst was my third year which required shelling out for 2 weeks in New York, in full, upfront. Plus spending money. They aren’t optional but the alternatives offered by other units included Rio d J!! How on earth is someone from an average background meant to afford that?

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  • It seems to have changed a bit since my day. I think we went to Paris and mid-Wales in the first year. I had to wait until I got to the AA for the really exotic trips. I think that encouraging the less well off to become even poorer through an architectural career is not a great idea. They should be aspiring to well paid professions such as law, medicine and hedge fund management. I would advise any 18-year thinking of becoming an architect to read ‘Architectural Education’ by Moira M Malcolm. I’m retraining as a barrister now.

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  • Whist i can see the negative psychological impact of a large student debt it could be £1m and make no difference to the amount paid which is calculated on the amount earned. It is ridiculous that the amount owing at the time it is written off will be more than the amount borrowed for almost all architectural students. The big issue will be when the government starts to write these debts off as the assumption appears to be that they will all be paid (and if it is not why not write it off for the students now). In about 27 years time the s*** will really hit the fan. The impact of the current system on annual deficit v gdp will only be felt then and will become even more significant as time progresses.

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  • How about scrapping the £50 admin fee just to apply as a starting point?

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