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Negotiating a brighter future as the sun sets on the Erasmus programme

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Academic Harriet Harriss investigates what Brexit will mean for universities, students and the cost of studying architecture

Following the result of a one-question, one-shot referendum ‘test’, the UK’s 90,000 practising architects and designers, 4,000 architecture academics and 18,000 architecture students now face diminished professional choices and a difficult future. Remarkably however, no one involved in communicating the facts or the implications of the test did so reliably or truthfully. Worse still, some of those involved have since been rewarded with front-bench appointments, despite evidence of their misconduct.

If architecture students were tested under the same dishonest conditions as the electorate, the tutors would be fired and the school closed down. Similarly, if an architect didn’t inform their client of risky and dramatic cost differentials between options, they’d be struck off. But this is British democracy, remember, where professional ‘honesty, integrity, competency’ and the most basic trading standards don’t seem to apply. Even the notion of buyer’s remorse serves to distract us from questioning the ethical implications of what happened, leaving us to wonder whether UK politicians are more in need than architects of a professional code of conduct.

While Brexit has triggered profoundly uncertain times in architectural practice and education, the profession and its member-organisations must share the burden of protecting the UK’s 50-odd architecture schools throughout the protracted, painful political process ahead. Right now, some commentators are describing this period as a ‘waiting game’. But don’t be fooled; huge changes are imminent and there is actually little time to waste in influencing them.

The next potentially devastating change concerns our impending expulsion from the Erasmus scheme – one of the great, pan-EU inventions of the 1990s. At present, Erasmus offers grant-enabled study across Europe for all EU students, fostering creative and cultural exchanges which collectively enrich architectural curriculums. For cash-strapped UK students in particular, the Erasmus grant not only offers a much-needed loans top-up, but helps to remedy the embarrassment of being born in Europe’s most monolingual country. So if you’re a UK national student, try to get involved now – before it’s too late.

Schools should offer immediate, cast-iron assurances on fixed fees to EU students aiming to start three-year undergraduate courses this autumn

Long before September, enrolment numbers force a sobering reality check. Architecture schools should be offering EU students cast-iron assurances about fee freezes, but these students will soon be reclassified as ‘international’, rocketing their fees up to prohibitive levels. At the same time, the UK student loan system will cease to be available to EU students interested in pursuing postgraduate study. In imposing these costly disincentives, the UK economy stands to lose the £3.7 billion and 34,000 jobs in local communities that EU students generate by studying in Britain – not to mention the cultural and creative losses we will sustain. Subsequently, not only should schools annex fee tariffs for the EU students already enrolled, they should offer immediate, cast-iron assurances on fixed fees to EU students aiming to start three-year undergraduate courses this autumn, no matter what unfolds in the next two years. Why else would these students take the risk of coming here to study this year?

The departure of EU students studying in UK institutions will trigger university funding deficits that few impecunious schools of architecture can afford. As such, they need to plan how to avoid this loss of revenue being passed to UK students in the form of fee hikes, exacerbating the limiting cost of education and denying even more working-class students access to higher education. Strategies include setting up alumni-funded bursary schemes, negotiating new models of practice sponsorship and even offering creative forms of practice-situated routes to qualification. The London School of Architecture has already pioneered a pedagogic prototype, and we have the RIBA office-based exam, but all schools should consider doing this.

Erasmus bridge

Erasmus bridge

Source: VIEW/Sonia Mangiapane Sman

Now architecture academics and students alike have just lost their entitlement to live and work in 27 different European countries, something needs to be done to try to claw back some of their professional and academic prospects, starting with the UK initiating independent EU university collaborations, partnerships and exchanges. Even though meeting the Bologna mandate was contingent on our equitable EU membership, putting it in place anyway gives a clear message that we see our EU repatriation as a matter of time, not a lost cause. Plus, EU schools – which will likely find themselves flooded with our departing EU students – will become our key competitors. If our new prime minister has taught us anything it’s to keep our enemies closer. Added to this is the need for a strategy to continue to attract young EU talent. Germany is already offering dual nationality to bright young Brits; the losses practices will incur as a result of losing our home-grown, brightest young minds are not to be underestimated.

Architecture academics and students alike have just lost their entitlement to live and work in 27 different European countries

Of course, wider international partnerships should also be nurtured, not least because our international students are likely to think twice about studying in a country now known for its racism, declining economy and political stupidity. Instead, they will likely choose to study at multicultural institutions in welcoming, tolerant countries – places where they can build professional and personal networks with forward-thinking people from all over the world.

And yet there are some changes we may all be powerless to influence. For example, UK higher education will lose £1 billion in research funding from Brussels, and the UK government is unlikely to make up the shortfall. Of course, there’s always the option of corporate-funded research but we only need look at the US to understand the problem of trying to serve both civic and commercial agendas. Combine dwindling student numbers with a lack of research funds and faltering academic career prospects and a massive academic brain drain is likely to ensue.

Higher education is one of the UK’s most internationalised workforces and contributes £73 billion towards the UK economy each year – almost 17 times as much as the architecture profession’s £4.33 billion contribution. Approximately 14 per cent of UK academic staff are from other EU countries, with architecture schools often among the most diverse faculties. Without EU tutors, these schools will wind up insulated from other cultures and the aesthetic richness and global relevance of students’ work will no doubt suffer. As Oxford University’s chancellor, Chris Pattern, has warned, new, complex and possibly costly visa arrangements for EU academics might mean the UK struggles to attract and retain the best academic talent, affecting the standards of excellence in teaching and research for which UK higher education is globally recognised.

But this is architecture, after all … and as Johan De Walsche of the Universiteit Antwerpen, points out, architectural education is characterised by a drive for constant experimentation and a desire to renew itself through exchanges facilitated across countries’ borders, rather than being obstructed by old-fashioned, protectionist or nationalist burdens or complications. And while we can’t presuppose the kinds of partitions the Brexit button may or may not impose, the architecture profession should always remain tenacious enough to shimmy under the wire.

All of us have a vital role to play in demonstrating the continuing value and relevance of architectural education and the profession to individuals and society as a whole. In short, we must ignore the advice to sit quietly until the dust settles, and instead be willing to stand up for our staff and students in the face of rising racism, anti-intellectualism and possible exclusion. If there was ever a time to exhume a wobbly rehash of architectural heroism, to ignite new honesty, integrity and competency regarding architecture’s role in social and urban transformations, this is surely it.

Harriet Harriss is an architect and senior tutor in interior design and architecture at the Royal College of Art, London

student banner wide

student banner wide

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Two further points about the benefits Erasmus program: There will come a time (probably quite soon) when there is more work for architects somewhere else in Europe than there is in Britain. Erasmus helps students to bridge the gap from Britain to the rest of Europe so that they can search for work there. More importantly, those architecture students who use the program to travel abroad usually come back to Britain where they can't help but share the valuable ideas and influences that they have picked up while abroad. Going forward, we must find a way to preserve and enhance this transmission of ideas as well as people.

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