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Is architectural education too long?

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[Student Shows 2013] Essay 3: Steve Parnell

There is an assumption behind this question which I would first like to contest: that the purpose of an architectural education is purely for the creation of architects. I do not believe that this should be the case. Rather, an undergraduate degree in architecture should be as vital, as intellectually rigorous, as creative, as critical, and as relevant as any other degree in the arts or humanities. This does not mean it has to be a wishy-washy degree in general studies, but that there is a valid way of conceiving the world architecturally, and that there are creative, project-based ways to study it, to learn to solve problems and make propositions about it. The more people who learn about the value of design within the built environment, both the material and immaterial, the better that environment will be.

Such an education should not be based on the notion of transmitting a teacher’s idea of good taste and the acculturation of a personality type, but on the critical engagement with ideas and issues, be they social, technical, poetic, or ideally a mixture of all three.

Taking, for the sake of argument, the traditional tripartite seven-year route to qualification, I would argue that it is not necessarily the length of this education that needs adjusting, but its configuration. Other professionals endure a similar period of theoretical and practical training. I have two brothers who each took seven years to qualify, one as a solicitor and the other as an academic. Whether or not you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s rule of thumb: that it takes 10,000 hours of practice before you become competent, this is roughly what five years of university and two of practice allows.

However, the real question is one of economics: is the course affordable in terms of the hard-nosed bottom line of investment and return? Now that most undergraduate degrees cost £9,000 a year, and even Part 2 courses are technically undergraduate degrees, this leaves the poor graduate with a debt of £45,000 from fees alone and with the prospect of a starting salary of only around £25,000, according to the RIBA. As an aside, it is worth noting that fees for Postgraduate Taught Masters and PhD programmes are often about half the cost of an undergraduate degree per annum.

This debt is comparable to that of solicitors, according to the Law Society, with trainees on two-year trainee contracts paid considerably less than post-Part 2 Architectural Assistants. The difference of course is that, once qualified, solicitors can quickly demand far greater salaries, paying off debts relatively quickly, whereas for architects, whose average salary hovers slightly above £40,000 a year according to RIBA, this debt will be with them for life, effectively becoming an ‘architect tax’. That’s a heavy price to pay for the privilege. Cultural capital can’t pay a mortgage.

Architectural education cannot solve the problems of architects’ value in society, although it can prepare future architects to expand the architect’s role or find new areas in which to apply architectural thinking. But the tripartite seven year configuration could, and should, be reconsidered. The compulsory post-Part 1 year out, for example, could be made voluntary, as it can be a complete waste of time for many, especially as they are still classed as students. And Part 2 should also be reconsidered, possibly integrating it into practice more, like at Bath, where students spend their first semester in a supervised work placement, or at Sheffield Hallam, where Part 2 can be attained through three years’ part-time study while working in practice, rather than two years’ full-time study. This reduces fees, enables students to earn and learn, and links theory to practice. Putting aside the requirement for parity with the EU for a moment, another possibility would be a one-year full-time Masters in an architectural specialism, much like the new Postgraduate Taught Masters programmes, followed by two years part-time merging the existing Parts 2 and 3. In design terms, the later years are as much about maturation of thinking as accretion of knowledge. That would mean a total of four years’ full-time and two years’ part-time study. But - and this is fundamental - this requires practice to take more responsibility for education and for the gap between academia and practice to be bridged. This is something only the validators can direct.

Steve Parnell is an architect, critic, and lecturer in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Nottingham

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