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'Oven-ready' students are the last thing the profession needs

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The mysterious world of architectural qualification may be about to become clearer, writes Paul Finch

Giving my annual talk to Part 3 students at the Bartlett last month, it struck me as usual that it is a really hard slog to qualify as an architect, let alone become a successful practitioner. The rather odd survey conducted for RIBA Appointments, reported last week, suggested that most practitioners think most students aren’t ready for the ‘real world’ of practice on qualification.

This is probably a good thing; the notion of ‘oven-ready’ students being served up as cheap labour, working in offices where the top brass can’t use today’s design technology, is the last thing the profession needs.

The truth is that after an essentially academic education, it is scarcely surprising that students are less experienced than they will be five or 10 years later. A more interesting question is whether, after five years of full-time education, a year out and year of professional practice in an office environment, entrants to the profession have the rounded intelligence about design and associated matters that will see them through their professional life.

I wonder whether construction students are regarded as rounded contractors when they undertake their first jobs working for building companies. Medical students have to spend years as junior doctors before they are let loose on patients with serious conditions. Lawyers practise for years before they become QCs, if they ever do.

What is so different about architecture? Actually what is different is the bizarre differences in routes to qualification across the EU, which has utterly failed to create a level playing field whereby clients and users across the continent can be confident that people creating the built environment have some sort of common education.

To give one example, you can qualify as an architect in Denmark after four years of full-time college education with no requirement to work in an office. Moreover, that qualification will stand across Europe. The UK’s Architects Registration Board is obliged to accept you as a fully qualified professional, even though this way of learning is not approved here by either ARB or the RIBA, which, let us remember, has been validating architecture courses at home and abroad since the 1920s.

By the way, any EU citizen who can get on to a Danish architecture course will not have to pay any fees. Even Scottish students find this more attractive than their own free system, since you get your qualification more quickly.

This sort of economic threat to schools of architecture in the UK is evoking various responses, with the RIBA taking a lead in co-ordinating and leading the charge in favour of a seven-year minimum qualification system, which would incorporate practical/professional training within that period, but abandon the old Part 1, 2 and 3 exams in favour of continuous monitoring.

Needless to say this is seriously ruffling feathers in parts of the educational establishment. Arguments are being rehearsed prior to a special meeting of RIBA Council at the end of March. This may well take decisions as significant as those of the 1958 Oxford Conference, which set the pattern of architectural education for the following six decades.

An intriguing moment, following as it does a long line of reports into the restricting of schools and what they teach and that constant refrain about students not being up to it.

I don’t buy the latter argument for one simple reason: the huge number of successful practitioners who have created their own practices over the past 40 years. It is true that architecture has declined in status over that period, but the reasons for that are not about education, but factors to which I will return next week.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I am not sure you can dismiss education being partially the reason for the decline of the architect so readily. It is part of the process and therefore needs to be looked at seriously as part of the problem. Especially since you state that the current system was created in 1958.
    Perception is reality and if clients think that architects are just not as relevant as other alternative service providers, that is all that matters. Its doesn't have to be true, just be perceived as being true.

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  • You should judge the profession on the quality of the built environment not on the nebulous category of successful practitioners (whatever that means, wealth (nope), status (nope again)?). If you focused on the last 14 years rather than the last 40 you'd see a different picture. I think the days when a working-class boy like Norman Foster can grow a practice doing superlative work are long gone. This is as much to do with the dumbing-down of society in general as much as anything else and of course part of the job of the architect is, in David Chipperfield's typically spot-on words, 'cultural leadership', educating patrons and the public. In order to do this however a technical vocabulary is required as well as an artistic one (and it's debatable as to whether or not current training engenders even this latter) the same is true for effective building design. Surely it's best that would be students should have a balanced vocabulary from the beginning? Think of the greatest architects in history who had such a balanced vocabulary from an early stage of their careers, often because they learned 'outside' established systems of education; Mies, Michelangelo, Corb, FLW..it can't be an accident. Judging expressions of interest for a project from very well known award winning architects last year I was shocked at the state of the finances of some of these great firms. This is as a result of the architect's fall in status, which has come about because people have come to distrust architects in a way that they don't distrust doctors and lawyers. It's not complicated.

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