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Student survey: Only the rich need apply to study architecture

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  • 21 Comments

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.

Student survey1

Student survey1

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.

Student survey3

Student survey3

‘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.’

Student survey2

Student survey2

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.’

Student survey4

Student survey4

‘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

Survey respondent

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. 

 

Student survey5

Student survey5

 

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

Survey respondent

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.

Student survey7

Student survey7

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.’

Student survey6

Student survey6

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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Student survey: Only the rich need apply to study architecture

  • 21 Comments

Readers' comments (21)

  • The long hours of studying required on the behalf of students also has financial implications. I had to quit my job when I realised that even a few shifts a week were not feasible because of how much of my time my studies were demanding.

    I can think of coursemates of mine who needed to do part-time work to support themselves whilst studying who then failed their coursework or dropped out completely because of the struggle to make enough time for both their job and their degree. As a recent graduate my experiences have convinced me that architectural education is in many ways still designed to be exclusively for the priveledged.

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  • Dan Brown - in my experience it didn't used to be, back in the 1960s and 70s.

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  • joseph b fitzgerald

    As I have a lifetime in architecture I cannot agree My Father was working class and made it possible for me to do the course. It was up to me to do this and give him back something of that !!!

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  • Students from the early 2000s whom only paid £1000 a year in tuition fees all could have told future students that doing Architecture with a £9000+ tuition fee was going to be extremely tough going... mental Health is not good at all and architects practices must pay more as a collective whole to post part 2s and young architects. The profession as a whole has to sponsor more students (part 3 exam fees often paid by any self respecting practice already ) but much more must be done. £9000+ a year should include all the associated printing / materials / laptop / pc kit required - it shouldn’t be an extra cost to the student if both the university reputation and industry expects them to be capable of bringing that skill to the workplace.

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  • As someone who was in the privileged position to get a grant ( late 1980s- early 1990s), I sympathise with today's generation. On the surface, it seems that the students are coming from more affluent backgrounds and as a first generation working class immigrant, it breaks my heart that someone who is in my situation will not get the opportunity today. It does seem that apprenticeships are the way forward and we are actively looking at that route to help young people and would recommend that the RIBA, ARB and the schools put in significantly more effort if we are to ensure that our profession remains eclectic and not the preserve of the rich.

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  • I studied in the 1980's and the experience just about bankrupted my parents who were school teachers and it just about tore our family apart as, after three years, their enthusiastic, creative, academically able child came home a wreck.

    I can't imagine how bad it is now. Basically it isn't worth getting into horrific debt to do this useless, barbaric course. Since its inception in the 1950s 'little hitler' tutors have been marking project work based on no set criteria, plucking marks from the sky and only teaching through criticism which some confuse with verbal abuse.

    I was failed at the end of 3rd year and told casually to 'repeat the year' despite having a real aptitude for it (well two architecture firms employed me during a recession and told me this). Sadly my experience is a common one. Architecture schools love to fail students whose designs or personality they don't favour. Stay clear if you want to stay sane. However, if you are wealthy just employ an architect to do your drawings and hand them in as your own and gain a degree without touching pen to paper - plenty do.

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  • No, they don't Morag. In my experience of 30 years involved in architecture and teaching, schools of architecture do everything possible not to fail a student. Every opportunity is given.

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  • I've just read some of your other aj postings on architecture education Morag. It's clear if what you say is true that you have had a tough time and been treated unfairly.

    However, I do not recognise most of your comments, particularly regarding the short shrift given to undergraduate students as a true representation and in my experience, as someone teaching at all levels and now running architecture units, the idea that you employ an architect to do your drawings and hand them in as your own, frankly rubbish.

    I don't know where you studied but I suggest you take these issues up with that school, instead of painting all schools with the same tar brush.

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  • In my teaching experience the universities from the early 1990's started to move the goalposts of admission criteria to increase student numbers. For example, architectural applicants used to have to have passed A level Maths and Physics, but not any more. Also the mood changed so that failing a student was not an option because of loss of their fee. This of course meant that there was an increase in students from all economic levels and despite the student loans the costs became prohibitive as this article shows.

    The same argument can be levelled at courses in the Arts such as Drama whereby the wealthier students have a better chance of survival.

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  • The whole system of student loans is completely broken. If you take out a full loan for maintenance and fee for the 5 years at university (which is presumably what almost everyone does) the amount owing at the end of the 30 year period is likely to be more than the value of the loan in the first place. How can this make sense?

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