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Only collective action can save architectural education

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Higher education is facing swingeing cuts and space-hungry architectural education could well be in the front line, says Robert Mull

I worry that under these pressures, education and the profession could retreat into factionalism, self interest and elitism and the delicate consensus, particularly around education, that has emerged in recent years will fail. Worryingly, the RIBA won’t defend students’ pay, the Russell Group vice chancellors think students should pay more and pay it back quicker, and political resistance to uncapped tuition fees has all but collapsed in the face of opportunism.

A growing faction sees protectionism as the best way of defending our profession from competitors and architectural education from further cuts. After all, what use is a profession if it isn’t exclusive? Rather than widen access to education and the profession, we must limit the overall size of education, raise the A-Level points and ensure this smaller elite have automatic access to status and work.

This faction now has a lot in its favour. The overall number of students in higher education is already severely limited and the ability to charge uncapped fees will result in a two-tier education system split between institutions which can/will charge and those that can’t/won’t, and students who can/can’t pay.

Add to this that it is almost impossible to be a part time student due to inequalities in funding, and that if you’re already qualified in a discipline allied to architecture you can’t carry any credit for this past first year, then such protectionism has a significant headstart in the current climate.

The only way to resist such a scenario is clear collective action by the profession and education to define common values and defend common needs. However, the history of the architectural community acting for their collective good is not great – for example, negative fee bidding, our exploitation by the competition system and the exploitation of student labour.

But in recent years real progress has been made, including joint research into the position of women and ethnic minorities in architecture, work on earning and learning and a renewed emphasis on work in areas of social deprivation and political change. In the past 10 years, there has also been a fundamental shift in student values and ambitions. Students want to do something responsible with their skills and will no longer tolerate any expedient split between their duties as citizens, students and professionals. 

This hard-won consensus must form the basis of aggressive lobbying in support of students and in defence of excellence in UK architectural education. If we choose self-interest and factionalism, we deserve all that will come our way, not least from a generation of students that we will have betrayed.

  • Robert Mull is head of the department of architecture at London Metropolitan University, and is a former head of SCHOSA
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