This year the AJ’s student survey reveals how the eye-watering costs of education are forcing students to turn to the bank of mum and dad, fuelling fears of elitism
As the price tag of an architectural education stretches beyond £100,000 – this year’s AJ student survey reveals how the traditional route into the profession is becoming increasingly out of reach for many.
Survey data shows how, for each academic year, students are shelling out more than ever before, an average of £24,000, including tuition fees – a staggering total when multiplied by the five years students must study to complete Parts 1 and 2. Of the 469 UK-based respondents, 44 per cent name cost as the single biggest issue facing them and their peers.
The amount of debt students expect to be saddled with after graduating has also seen a huge spike, with 45 per cent of respondents believing they will never be in a position to pay back what they owe.
Of all the full-time students in England and Wales canvassed, 33 per cent predict they will owe between £50,000-£70,000, while 20 per cent say they will owe between £70,000-£90,000. These figures mark a significant increase on last year’s expected debt levels of 18 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.
In addition to the protracted course length, architecture students spend around £2,000 a year on hidden extras such as model-making, printing and study trips, as well as computers and books – an issue that was recently highlighted by an RIBA student representative in an open letter to university heads. Students raise concerns that these extra costs are becoming increasingly normalised.
One commented: ‘Expectations are increasing and it has become common practice in top architecture schools for final year students to pay for help. How is this normal? You need an assistant to get a top degree.’
Poorer students priced out
For the first time, this year’s survey has shed light on the extent to which students are turning to their parents for financial help. A massive 81 per cent of full-time Part 1 students said their families had contributed financially to their education, with 45 per cent stating they had received a ‘significant amount’ of assistance. Many of those polled say that, without help from their families, there is simply no way they could afford to study architecture.
There is also concern that those from poorer backgrounds are being priced out. ‘Elitism’ in architectural schools is a recurring criticism among respondents.
‘I have frequently been asked, “Can’t your parents help you out?” one student comments, adding: ‘This worries me – the future of our profession is narrowing into a small pathway where only a certain class of person can jump on board.’
Asked to name the biggest issue, another says: ‘The elitism. Costs of the course, accommodation, private institutions and equipment price many talented students out of a potential career in architecture.’
Melissa Kirkpatrick, 23, studying on the Part 2 collaborative practice course at Sheffield University, says the ‘sad truth’ is that, without help from her parents, she would never have been able to study architecture. She says: ‘Within architecture schools there is a move back towards it being an elitist profession, and a sentiment that architectural education is more of a luxury for those who can afford to go the full way to qualification, rather than essential education available to all.’
Peter Lampl, founder of charity The Sutton Trust, says the cost of training to become an architect is a ‘serious issue’ and that the government should restore maintenance grants and means-tested fees so that disadvantaged students pay little or nothing.
He says: ‘Not only will graduates be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, but they’re also having to shell out thousands of pounds each year for laptops, study trips and printing.’
‘Mental health time-bomb’
The results of previous surveys have laid bare how mental health and stress problems affect a huge proportion of today’s students – and this year the outlook remains bleak.
Of all UK respondents, 33 per cent say they either are currently receiving treatment for mental health-related issues or stress or have in the past (up from 26 per cent in 2016 and 31 per cent in 2017); while 23 per cent say they think they might have to in the future.
A big reason for my mental deterioration was the doubt of whether I would be able to afford materials and the thought that I must be doing something wrong
The problem appears more acute for those also experiencing financial hardship. While 3 per cent of all students who receive financial help from their parents are currently being treated for mental health problems, this jumps to 18 per cent for those not receiving financial assistance. Architecture students tell the AJ this matched their own experiences of further education. Simeon Shtebunaev, 26, who is set to enrol for a PhD at Birmingham City University, says the struggle of balancing his Part 2 with mentoring students in exchange for free accommodation, as well as working part-time, has triggered mental health issues.
He says: ‘A big reason for my mental health deterioration was the doubt of whether I would be able to afford materials and the constant thought that I must be doing something wrong to be in this situation.’
Harriet Harriss, an academic and architecture education author, says stress and mental health issues are exacerbated by financial worries for students from poorer backgrounds. She says: ‘Juggling jobs and a demanding package of study along with anxiety over debt, is creating a mental health time-bomb and increases the likelihood of them graduating with an average degree.’
Long hours and low salaries
Architecture’s long hours culture shows no sign of disappearing, with a disturbing 77 per cent of students saying they had had to work through the night at some point during their studies.
More than a third (35 per cent) of students say they have ‘pulled an all-nighter’ on a regular basis (up one percentage point from 2017), with 42 per cent saying they have done so in the run-up to exams. ‘I once had a studio tutor tell me to manage my workload by “sleeping less”,’ one student says.
The fact that the students have to work over fifteen hours a day, plus in some cases during the night to finish their work, raises some serious questions how come this issue is treated as a normality in architecture and why nobody takes any action
Despite the intense workloads, some students say they do not feel prepared for life in the working world: 14 per cent of students’ biggest worries are that they feel unready for practice.
Debt worries are also compounded by concern over the low salaries students expect to earn after graduating, with 11 per cent of UK students naming this as one of the biggest issues.
This is echoed by Piers Taylor, former TV presenter and founder of Invisible Studio, who says: ‘Studying architecture in the UK costs about £100,000 and, unlike doctors, you’ll probably never make £100,000 [a year] as an architect. He adds: ‘I had to diversify into teaching, TV and other things – some of which I’ve hated and found humiliating.’
Doubts and drop-outs
So is the prospect of huge levels of debt and five years of education putting young people off a career in architecture?
Many admit to having doubts. ‘The prospect of more than £100,000 of student debt, five years in full-time education, followed by a career of modest salaries and long hours, are of great concern. The biggest issue to me is whether all of this is worth it’, one says.
The data shows that, while most students do still want to become fully qualified architects, there is a 10 per cent drop-off among UK respondents. Worryingly, it also reveals that, for students from BAME backgrounds, the drop-out rate is even higher, at 17 per cent.
Sonia Watson, CEO of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the industry, is concerned by the figures. She says: ‘We have always known that the huge cost of qualifying as an architect can deter young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from considering architecture as a career. The sad thing is that the rise in costs and the need for extra financial support to continue their studies seems to be hitting those from BAME backgrounds the hardest.’
With no sign of any educational reforms on the horizon – the new practice-backed apprenticeships being a notable exception – the numbers of students abandoning their hope of becoming architects seems likely to rise.
While some will always find a way to fund their education, the shrinking talent pool will have a wider impact on the diversity of the profession and its output. As Harriss says: ‘The effect of reducing diversity-of-access to an architectural degree will result in the profession failing to represent the society it seeks to serve, and deplete both our relevance and credibility.’
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