The results of the AJ’s annual student survey reveals widespread fears over debt, workloads and practical training and unearths a worrying landscape of stress-related illness. Richard Waite and Ella Braidwood report
The pressures of architecture education are taking a shocking toll on the mental health of the next generation of architects, according to the results of the AJ’s annual student survey.
Nearly 450 UK-based students completed the in-depth questionnaire which, for the first time, asked about the emotional burden of completing the seven-year course.
The anonymous survey also highlights a growing debt problem, a widely accepted culture of excessive working hours and fears that education is not preparing students for practice.
Respondents were questioned too about discrimination at university, with the results pointing to little-reported issues with sexism and racism.
Just over a quarter of students surveyed (26 per cent) said they were receiving or had received medical help for mental health problems resulting from their course, while a further quarter of respondents (26 per cent) feared they would have to seek professional help in the future. Overall, more than half of students (52 per cent) in the survey expressed concerns about their mental health in some way.
Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor at the University of Buckingham and a mental-health campaigner told the AJ: ‘Britain has a near epidemic of mental-health problems among its students. Those studying architecture appear to be under added burdens emanating perhaps from the very length of the course and time taken before earning a proper income.
‘Much could be done to rethink the courses so they align with the architectural education needs of the future rather than the dictates of the architectural big cheeses of the past.’
University staff, too, are noticing the emotional strain of architecture education on their students. Timothy Smith, course director of BA(Hons) Architecture at Kingston University, says there has been a rise in the number of students applying for ‘mitigating circumstances or extensions’ in recent years, adding that the requirement for many to work part time means there is a ‘great deal of pressure’ on them.
Nam Kha Tran, a RIBA Part 2 student at the Sheffield School of Architecture, says he knows a small number of students experiencing mental health problems, describing it as the ‘disease of our generation’. He says: ‘We seem to be lacking a strong voice about this within the profession. There doesn’t seem to be one champion, one inspirational figure that has the best interests of architecture students at heart.’
Britain has a near epidemic of mental-health problems among its students
The AJ’s data also echoes more general findings for students across all disciplines. Statistics recently obtained by the National Union of Students in Scotland show a 47 per cent increase in the number of students applying for help for mental health problems across Scottish institutions between 2011-2012 and 2014-2015.
Have you sought help for stress or mental health related issues as a result of your course?
Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, says university students are not only burdened with ‘the stress of exams and coursework deadlines’ but also with high student loans and debt. He reports a surge in calls to the charity’s helpline from those struggling with financial problems in the last few years.
Breaking the AJ survey figures down by gender, more female students reported seeking medical advice for mental health than male. Nearly one in three women in the survey (29 per cent) reported receiving mental health treatment, compared with 23 per cent of men.
I am concerned that the combination of tuition fees, rising student debt and the necessity to take on paid work can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems
Responding to the survey, Luciana Berger, a Labour MP and former shadow minister for mental health, says: ‘These figures are a worrying indication of the pressures architecture students are under.’ She adds that university can be a very stressful time for students – after leaving home and support networks – and it is ‘vital that universities have support in place’.
To date, little research has been specifically carried out on the mental health of architecture students, although the University of Toronto ran a study in 2013, which subsequently inspired the University of Brighton and the Architecture Students Network to host a conference on the subject. Together they have drawn up a list of recommendations in a manifesto aimed at tackling the problem – including discouraging a ‘culture of all-nighters’ to challenge the stereotype that ‘architecture has to be a life with no balance’.
In light of the AJ’s findings, RIBA president Jane Duncan is urging architecture students experiencing mental health problems ‘to seek help’, stressing that they ‘are not alone’. She says: ‘Long hours, a heavy workload … and intense design scrutiny’ are embedded in ‘the culture of architecture education’.
Duncan adds: ‘I am concerned that the combination of tuition fees, rising student debt and the necessity for many students to take on paid work outside study can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems.’
The RIBA president’s thoughts mirror those of the AJ’s survey respondents, many of whom claimed the expectation of working long hours contributed to their mental illness. A culture of working into the night, the survey confirms, remains endemic in architecture schools.
Just over nine in ten (91 per cent) students reported working through the night for their studies at some point – and almost one in three (29 per cent) said they did it on a regular basis. This figure increased in the run up to hand-ins, when nearly half (46 per cent) of respondents admitted to pulling an all-nighter due to the heavy workload.
One student says: ‘Every architecture student has to do all-nighters, no matter how much you time manage and work hard.’
Satwinder Samra, senior university teacher at Sheffield School of Architecture, says all-nighters have, unfortunately, become ‘the bedrock of architectural production’, adding there is a widespread acceptance that working through the night produces ‘better work’. He opposes universities providing 24-hour access for students, saying it causes stress and anxiety and supports the ‘model’ of working for no pay.
Have you had to work through the night?
Almost two-fifths (38 per cent) of respondents said they would have accumulated a debt of £30,000-50,000 by the end of their course. Regionally, this is highest in London – 58 per cent of students based in London said their debt would be £40,000 or above, whereas outside the capital this figure is 39 per cent. More than one in ten (13 per cent) believe they will owe more than £70,000 – a rise of 4 per cent from last year.
Furthermore, nearly two-fifths (38 per cent) reported that they don’t expect to pay off their student loan – an increase from 31 per cent the year before. One student writes: ‘The course has taken me nine years. I’ll never be out of debt.’
Earlier this month, the Higher Education and Research Bill – which will allow universities with a high standard of teaching to raise annual fees above the maximum £9,000 – went through its second reading in the House of Commons. This could see student debt levels balloon even further.
Do you ever expect to pay your student loan back?
Fionn Stevenson, head of Sheffield School of Architecture, says the bill is a ‘real concern’ and predicts an increase in fees at Russell Group universities. She argues that, unlike American colleges with established scholarship schemes, there will be a ‘five-year squeeze’ between the increase in fees and the establishment of adequate philanthropic programmes to help poorer students.
‘As schools of architecture and the profession, we should be making our voice clearly heard in terms of our concerns about government policy,’ she says.
If you are on your year out, either part 1 or 2, how much do you earn?
Working for free and course value
Around a third (31 per cent) of students in the survey said they had been asked to work for free by practices. On top of this, some with a salary claimed they were often not paid to work overtime.
John Assael of Assael Architecture brands practices asking students to work for nothing as ‘disgraceful’. ‘You wouldn’t ask young lawyers, trainee vets or doctors to work for nothing,’ he says. ‘It’s a scandal perpetrated by practices and they should be rebuked.’
In addition, more than a third of respondents (35 per cent) felt their course was either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value for money. For Assael, architecture education is becoming ‘a profession for middle-class kids with wealthy parents’. He says that, with high fees and an expectation to work for free, students from poor backgrounds can’t afford to study architecture – ‘that discriminates against very talented kids’.
The situation does appear to have improved since 2015 when 39 per cent of students surveyed by the AJ said they had been asked to work for free. In addition, this year’s survey shows a slight increase in the percentage of students expecting to earn £20,000 or more in their year out (55 per cent compared with 50 per cent last year).
Have you ever been asked to work for free?
A significant number of respondents felt architecture education was too long (61 per cent) and did not equip them for practice (35 per cent).
‘Students from great schools of architecture can design a city on the moon but they can’t make a conservatory application for their mum,’ says Assael.
Furthermore, nearly two-fifths (38 per cent) said construction, technology and business teaching within architecture training was either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. Kevin Singh, head of Birmingham School of Architecture, says the figure is a ‘worry’ and, although he thinks the situation is improving, suggests the RIBA criteria requiring at least 50 per cent of the course to be on design may not leave enough in the curriculum for everything else.
‘We use the example of the driving test. It’s not about getting a piece of paper. It’s about making sure you’re a safe driver for the rest of your life,’ he says. ‘Architecture education is quite similar to that. Actually this is about people for another 40-50 years of their career. How much can you recreate in a university?’
Should an architectural education make you ready to go into practice?
Should practices have a responsibility to educate students?
A worrying number of female students reported discrimination on the grounds of their gender, showing that sexism is still rampant across the industry. Half of women in the survey said they had experienced sexism at some point, compared with just one in ten men. Female students reported tutors often seeing them as ‘less capable’ and ‘more sensitive’ than their male counterparts. Some female respondents also claimed male students drowned them out in discussions.
And, while the survey did not specifically ask students about their ethnicity, 13 per cent of all respondents said they had faced racial discrimination. One respondent wrote: ‘There is an obvious division between the indigenous ‘British’ students and the international students, especially when it comes to group work.’
Have you faced discrimination in any of these forms?
Not all doom and gloom
Nevertheless, the AJ student survey does present some gems of optimism. There is a 10 per cent increase in students reporting receiving support from their university in finding a job (61 per cent in 2016 compared with 51 per cent in 2015). Students also rated many aspects of their courses highly: 77 per cent rated their tutors as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, while this figure stands at 68 per cent for the diversity of schools and 68 per cent for the quality of teaching. And more students than last year – 77 per cent versus 74 per cent – reported wanting to become an architect when they qualified.
Do you still intend to become an architect after your education?
How would you rate your school
The future of architecture education
The AJ student survey places a question mark over the emotional wellbeing of the next generation of architects. With a significant number of students receiving treatment for poor mental health, could the findings also affect the creativity and prospects of the profession in the future?
The findings also raise questions for those at the forefront of architecture education – including the RIBA, ARB and universities themselves. What is their role in preserving the mental health of students, and have they let students down? As Maham Tahir, an architecture student at Birmingham City University, says: ‘The nature of the course is very demanding and can be a cause of stress and anxiety for many students. However, if the correct help is present when needed, it can stop many situations from escalating.’
Many of those suffering will no doubt hope that these findings act as a wake-up call.
How do you feel about the length of architectural education?
If you experience mental health problems, a number of support services may be able to help:
Alan Dunlop, honorary chair in contemporary architectural practice, Liverpool School of Architecture
’The results of the survey are worrying – particularly the percentage being asked to work for free, and issues surrounding mental health – but most are expected. They reflect the most pressing issues in architecture education today: what is taught, how we teach and the extent to which students should be prepared for practice – or ‘office ready’ – immediately after university.
’In response to today’s culture of low fees and low pay there is pressure on universities, from the RIBA in particular and the profession in general, to ensure more teaching effort is diverted to administrate business, legal and professional skills. Not surprisingly, students also want to be confident that they can find employment after graduation and be able to pay off their loans.
’However, the acquisition of administration and project processes is the responsibility of the profession, and making students fit for practice is not the primary role of schools of architecture.
’Architecture is a learned profession. The responsibility of the schools is to promote critical engagement and open enquiry, to teach history, social responsibility and the importance of context, and to develop students as designers, who have the expertise and knowledge required to make buildings of worth – not teach basic office skills and client protocols. It is this approach, not making students office-ready, that will produce young architects of real value to the profession and to society, and ensure graduates have a career to look forward to and so are able to pay off debt.’
Tatiana von Preussen, director, vPPR Architects
’My experience is that all-nighters and the pressure of the course for many people can be incredibly rewarding, often a lot of fun and usually self-imposed. Students should work hard and be challenged as it prepares them for the real world.
’However I am very sympathetic to the levels of debt. The argument for tuition fees has often been that graduates end up earning so much more than non-graduates that they somehow owe the state for this privilege. For architects this is clearly not the case. Certainly the RIBA needs to advocate far more strongly to change attitudes towards architects and their relative worth as consultants on a project. We need to be able to charge higher fees in order to pay graduates better and clients need to understand why this is worthwhile (reducing much more costly errors on site by designing more carefully up front for instance; a better understanding of the value a well-designed building can have for its occupants).
’Another issue that could reduce debt is shortening architectural education, as it is in the US, where a three-year master’s (post another subject) is considered equivalent to our five-year diploma. This would also help women by allowing them to enter the workplace sooner and giving them time to fully qualify before starting a family, at which point it often becomes too much to juggle.’
Gem Barton, course leader, BA (Hons) interior architecture, University of Brighton
‘The stresses students face outside of their intensive academic workload are of great concern for staff, students and their families alike. We are finding that many more students are taking on part-time work in an attempt to combat mounting debt. While there are guidelines about the maximum of hours a student should work, adhering to this is not always possible. In some of these cases, attempting to balance paid work and academic work has a detrimental effect on the students’ wellbeing as well as their ability to engage sufficiently with the high demands of an architecture course.’
Timothy Smith, course director, BA(Hons) Architecture, Kingston University London
’At Kingston we encourage students to manage their time in a professional manner, ideally as part of a regular working week of 40 hours to which the course has been written. Inevitably, as in practice, students put some long hours in at certain times in the year.
’ [In terms of mental health] we have noticed that applications for mitigating circumstances or extensions have risen in recent years. Squeezing a demanding, professionally accredited course into a compressed academic year, when more and more students are having to work part time alongside their studies, has resulted in a great deal of pressure for our students.
‘[The level of debt] is the direct result of government policy. However it is also true that the quality of our built environment is dependent on the training of skilled design professionals and this takes time and a great deal of effort on the part of the student and the teacher. We constantly reflect on the delivery of our teaching and seek innovative ways for our students to excel, but a key aspect of a design education is reflection, maturity and practice and these things take a certain minimum time.’
Rowan Parnell, operations director, Architecture Initiative
‘It is apparent that the mental health issues experienced by architecture students are the product of both stressful course structures and also the worry brought about by financial burdens of fees and living costs. These two issues tie into some of my main concerns with architectural education as an employer.
‘Firstly, university courses are not properly preparing architecture students for actually practising architecture. Most Part 1 or Part 2 students leave university with no real knowledge of the professional service which they are joining.
‘Secondly, courses are putting the wrong emphasis on students in terms of time management (ie students being pushed to work all hours), which leads to a perpetuation of this practice once they leave uni and come into practice, either pushed by the studio as a culture or by the employee as this has been normalised for them.
‘There should be far more done to allow for architectural apprenticeships in practice. An 18-year-old school leaver with the right attitude and skills should be able to start their architectural education in practice, able to take their Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 qualifications while being employed full-time in an architectural studio, under the guidance of practice mentors. Universities have to rethink the emphasis of their courses, to ensure that they are producing a new generation of young architects who have the skills required to work in practice.’