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Alan Atlee, Canterbury School of Architecture, on education - 'Tuition hikes will close schools'

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Three big ideas underpin the government’s current plans for the reform of Higher Education funding in England

The first is a desire to define the value of education solely in terms of its future economic benefit to the individual. The second promotes the total financialisation of university funding, replacing state grants with subprime loans which students will use to trade their promise of future wages for a degree. Finally, the complete marketisation of the sector is intended to drive up standards and drive out unpopular or inefficient courses, faculties and entire universities. The imposition of this neoliberal ideology within the sector isn’t new – what is, is the speed with which the government intends to ‘complete the project’.

By mid-2011, individual institutions will have decided what level of tuition fees to set for 2012 entry and whether to vary these according to unit cost, student demand or the magical ‘market tolerance’. Thereafter lots of finger crossing will occur. Many institutions will surmise that architecture courses, still very popular with school leavers, merit premium rates around the £9,000 a year upper limit set by the government given their professional status, strong vocational content and complex requirements spread across five years.

This kind of business school thinking struggles to comprehend the simultaneous crisis in the wider profession evidenced by falling graduate employment, wage stagnation and declining fee levels. We already have an oversupply of architecture graduates. Architecture’s popularity is probably weaker than we’d like to believe and the limited cost/benefit calculations the government is encouraging prospective students to undertake could make for grim reading. Instead of a well-organised realignment based on national or local need, we’re likely to see an irrational process ensue resulting in declining diversity in the profession and course/school closures.

The Standing Conference of Heads of Schools of Architecture and the RIBA have lobbied the government to protect grant funding for Part 2 courses in an attempt to ameliorate the impact of these proposals. This narrowly focused tactic may have success but there is a demand from students for vested interests including university leaders and the professions, to speak out as public intellectuals in the widest terms against cuts and for education.

The student-led campaign against the cuts has articulated alternative systems of value in education – cultural enrichment, social wellbeing, co-operation, etc; shifting the debate away from pure economics. It is exploiting new social media and technologies to build alliances across geographic and disciplinary boundaries. It has shown a remarkable capacity to use space creatively and purposefully for inclusive educational purposes, building parallel institutions. It has demonstrated that self interest isn’t the only basis for participation in public life and debate (most student protestors won’t experience the new regime) and has begun to forge alliances with other labour and community groups.

Architects and schools could do a lot worse than embrace this range of tactics as part of a necessary overhaul of the way we educate architects, advocate for architecture and design and describe what we can offer society.

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