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How will the would-be RIBA presidents tackle education and diversity?

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The AJ asked the five contenders for the RIBA presidency how they would shake up the education system and what they would do to improve access to the profession for all

This year will be the first time that students, associate and affiliate members are eligible to vote for the RIBA presidency. The rule change effectively adds an extra 17,500 voters to the 30,000 members already eligible to decide who they want to head the organisation. Polls close on 4 August. 

If you could only do one thing to improve architectural education, what would it be, and why?

Sumita Singha Offer variation and flexibility in courses, as well as increasing accessibility to options such as apprenticeships.  Architecture is currently exclusive, due to the cost, length and the intensity of the course.

This is reducing diversity throughout the course and then throughout careers. It particularly affects those coming from non-traditional backgrounds. As a global brand, we need to diversify architectural education to attract teachers and students from a global pool and extend RIBA validation.

Simon Allford Promote the best proven alternative models for a more accessible and affordable architectural education at Parts 1 and 2. Architecture is a dynamic profession, where learning never stops. I know this can be done. As RIBA education vice-president, I set up Teaching Practices, an accessible pathway into the profession. I am a trustee of the London School of Architecture, and I’ve taught and examined at many universities in the UK and beyond, so I also know working with students is an energising, two-way exchange.

I know this as a practice: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris has established annual bursaries for architecture students at the University of Sheffield and at the Bartlett, and was part of the RIBA’s Trailblazer group, which founded the apprenticeship programme.

Valeria Passetti I’d increase collaboration between education and practice for a rounder, more relevant education, raising awareness about the issues architects face in practice.

Collaborating with mentors and practices would give future architects the technical, business and professional skills to enable them to choose their paths and to make a difference to our profession – and to run successful, resilient businesses, if they so wish. They would also be better-equipped to respond to future challenges, such as designing within the planet’s limits, and under health emergencies and global economic crises.

Jude Barber The single, biggest barrier to access into education is cost.  Until education is free at source (as in Finland, Denmark or Poland), there will be constant challenges with increasing social mobility, diversity of entry and retention in the profession.  In the meantime, we need to work together to create stronger pathways for people from all backgrounds so that our profession can better reflect the society it serves. This will require education and practice to work together to develop and promote apprenticeship models for learning that work in both directions – akin to the London School of Architecture and the University of Sheffield’s collaborative practice MArch courses. There’s a real opportunity to combine the rapid upskilling and tools required in practice with the energy and innovation from the student body and education.  

The current economic position and impending recession are challenging for everyone. We need to acknowledge the value and work that Part 1 and 2 placements bring to the workplace and find ways to support graduates and practice during these unprecedented times.

Nick Moss Bridge the gap between education and practice. It’s always been there. It used to be the case that practice picked up the slack but marginalisation has meant there is lack of decent experience, especially at the Part 1 stage, due to lack of site exposure and detailing, plus focusing on SketchUp and the pressure of doing more work in less time.

That means we have a self-fulfilling downward spiral of de-skilling.

In order to be relevant, the first year out needs to be rethought.


What practical measures would you introduce tomorrow to improve the diversity of the profession? 

Sumita Singha In my manifesto I’ve recommended practices commit to an equal opportunity policy. The existing gender and ethnicity pay gaps should be reduced, not just announced each year. Progression will enable greater visibility. It will boost diversity and decrease the pay gaps. 

Different ways of working, including home working, which has worked so successfully in the pandemic, will also enable people with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities to contribute effectively, while maintaining a good work:life balance. RIBA Jobs offers should be based on skills match, to offer greater prospects to women, black and minority ethnic architects and students. Each practice should take on at least one black student for their year out experience, because they usually drop out at this stage.

Simon Allford Education is key to creating a more representative profession. Architects need to engage with schools in promoting the profession as a career and then ensure it is an attractive and open destination. A representative profession is more capable and better able to pursue the art of architecture for the benefit of our society.  

Thirty years ago, fewer than 10 per cent of the profession were women; educational opportunity and encouragements has transformed that situation. Of course more work needs to be done and the gender pay gap initiative will help push things on. We should approach the drive for greater diversity in the same way. I would encourage initiatives such as the apprenticeship programme we run at AHMM (set up initially with the help of The Stephen Lawrence Trust). I support the continuing monitoring of diversity in the profession. At AHMM we have undertaken a (self-identifying) ethnicity survey. 

We also need a profitable profession that will attract the talented by offering decent salaries and career opportunities, as well as good working conditions and sensible working hours.

Jude Barber I’d champion non-hierarchical and agile ways of doing things that promote inclusivity, creativity and empowerment. I will celebrate non-hierarchical business and education models, such as employee ownership, partnerships and vertical studio learning to promote collaborative and collegiate working. Also, I’d ensure that we are frank and honest about the many injustices in society – systemic racism, white privilege, classism and sexism – which permeate our profession. We need to accept that there is a problem and call these things out – collectively and individually – whenever we see them. We need to raise our awareness of discrimination and intersectionality, so we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us. I sit on the RIBA Architects for Change Working Group, which will lead the delivery of the RIBA’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Strategy and embed this into every aspect of what we do.

I will encourage and celebrate diversity and inclusivity so we can reflect the society we live in, our reality. Consequently, our workplaces and creative output will be more agile, relevant, resilient and capable.

Nick Moss In terms of education, we need to work on the bottom of the pyramid, to allow for real change at entry level, which can then filter through to the top positions, including practice owners.

But we must also look at what is happening as those students progress.  Choosing to study architecture is still a privileged path, largely due to the duration of the course and abysmal graduating salaries. Improving income will help attract applications from a wider range of people. And I believe procurement reform will help do that.

But there’s a small picture as well as a big one. If each one of us asks ourselves whether we’re doing enough, that can make a real difference.  We’ve asked ourselves that at the Manchester Society of Architects and are taking steps such as encouraging people who are under-represented in the society to join in. Our mission statement includes the phrase ‘to champion and nurture architects’. When we say that, we mean everyone. Small steps added together make big steps.  

One aspect of diversity that’s often overlooked is social class.  One of my nominators, Norman Foster, came from humble beginnings. There’s another Lord Norman or Norma out there. We should go out and find them and, when we’ve found them, we should inspire and encourage them.

Valeria Passetti Our profession needs diversity to thrive. I would initiate a full and frank discussion about the reasons why architecture doesn’t attract and retain diverse talent and I would make unconscious bias training part of our core CPDs.

I would enhance and extend the RIBA school programme so that more members can engage with children from underprivileged and minority backgrounds to inspire them to choose a career in architecture. It is vital to fuel future generations with the aspiration of making a difference in their communities and finding fulfilment in their careers.

I’d also call an end to aggressive crits, which are demoralising and detrimental to vulnerable students and women.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It is encouraging to see that the presidential candidates are taking the Student and Associate related issues more seriously, since the membership classes can now vote.

    The comments about expanding architectural education's validation criteria, lobbying to abolish (or striving to reduce as much as possible) costs and promoting a better entrepreneurial attitute throughout the period of learning in university and outside of it are hitting key points.

    The question and the answers, however, somehow assume a very linear progression through architecture and entry in the ARB register. We need to be thinking as well about the value of architectural education on its own (what is the benefit of studying architecture without progressing to become an architect), as well as, all the different routes that architects currently take before they become chartered (If ever they do! There is no attempt to talk to the 'architectural designers' or affiliates cohort, who are out there are designing buildings.). The majority of the answers still presume a Part I, II, III progression through year-outs in established practices, but what about people who set-up on their own, what about students who can't take that route due to prejudice in the recruitment route. (We all see the data that black graduates face racism in the hiring process and much steeper hill to climb when they are looking for that Part I and II job! What about attitutes to graduates with different nationality?) If architectural education needs to be re-thought it needs to be re-thought in relation to other degrees in construction and beyond, in relation to the future job market for professionals, not being thinkered with within the archtiecture bubble. I would love to hear the candidates views on the value of an architecture trained professional outside of an architectural practice.

    There are a few direct actions that any President can immediately take when stepping into office.

    Architecture is facing similar issues across the world, the President can work to convene a meeting of international institutions, educators and universities, to re-define architectural education for the 21st century. We need bolder ideas than the 'closer to practice' mantra (what is even future practice?) but also a consensus about the direction of travel. The 1950-60s consensus of architectural education is, is no longer valid.

    The President can throw their backing at the RIBA Future Archtiects initiative and utilise it as a breeding ground of ideas from Student and Assocaites. There is an emerging network led by the VPs for Student and Associates that can immediately serve as a test-bed of any ideas: https://www.architecture.com/education-cpd-and-careers/future-architects The person occupying the post needs to lead a continuous dialogue with the cohort and listen, not being afraid to change course if a solution isn't working.

    There is a great need to incorporate business and climate education in the curriculum and the RIBA can provide this learning through its website and services (indeed, it already is starting to do so). The president can easily encourage entrepreneurship and start-ups by coordinating existing resources and targetting emerging professionals. Initiatives such as Oak National Academy and RTPI Learn demonstrate how quickly online learning can be devised and utilised. The excuse that the RIBA shouldn't influence the teaching in universities is void, since the RIBA can easily provide extra training and support if it wants to shape a diverse and climate-aware profession.

    Finally, I think the president needs to fully embrace the role of an ambassador for the profession and be visible to the institutions, departments of government, media, public and other professional bodies that influence the study and practise of architecture. This will probably require a media and communication shake-up within the RIBA, however, the president needs to be able to speak out and be visible.

    Hopefully, there are candidates that won't be afraid to do so!

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