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Why would anyone choose to study architecture?

Will Hurst

This year’s AJ student survey paints a picture of escalating debts for a career path that seems increasingly poor value, writes Will Hurst

Why would anyone choose to study architecture? That is the question left hanging by the results of our annual student survey this week, which paints a depressing picture of young people racking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt to fund an education few seem to think worth the expense.

According to the results of the survey – completed by nearly 500 UK-based respondents – almost 70 per cent of full-time Part 1 students expect that by the end of their studies they will owe at least £40,000 (for many the figure exceeds £70,000). And yet only 28 per cent of those students consider their courses to be ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ value for money.

While the system of students loans in England and Wales has progressive aspects, such as the fact that loans are written off after 30 years and graduates repay nine per cent of everything earned above £21,000 (meaning low earners repay little or nothing), a £40,000 debt around your shoulders still feels like a £40,000 debt no matter what the small print says. In addition, students presumably fear that future governments could suddenly rewrite the terms of their loans – not a far-fetched expectation when one considers the current political volatility, the changes government has already made since 2012, and the fact that widespread non-payment of debts is clearly a looming disaster for the Treasury.

Architectural education risks becoming little more than a lengthy intellectual indulgence

Student loans are a hot political topic once again following the strong support Labour appeared to garner in the general election from Millennials on the back of its promise/aspiration of scrapping the current system. But whatever moves government makes on student loans, reform of architectural education is now urgently needed.

The current system was devised in a different era when the taxpayer picked up the bill for both the tuition fees and for much of the architecture its students went on to produce. Times have changed, and for all its strengths today – well documented in this issue – architectural education risks becoming little more than a lengthy intellectual indulgence. This will not only worsen its worrying brain drain but leave it incapable of attracting the students from poorer and indeed simply average backgrounds that it needs to remain viable.

In 2015, RIBA councillors voted through measures predicted to bring ‘momentous change’ to architectural education, including scrapping Part 3. But little appears to have happened since. The next RIBA president, Ben Derbyshire, should zero in on this issue as soon as he takes over from Jane Duncan in September. Architectural education needs to be made both shorter and less costly –and change cannot come too soon.


Readers' comments (2)

  • We also need to allow part time study. We have 5 students on this path. Not only do they reduce exposure to debt but their experience whilst in practice makes them more confident and skilled than their peers. The drawback, so few universities offer this route...

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  • The disparity between the length and cost of studying to become an architect needs to be addressed urgently…“for all its strengths today, architectural education risks becoming little more than a lengthy intellectual indulgence.” This hits the nail on the head. A few of us at bptw partnership recently met with RIBA representatives highlighting that the challenges of the cost of living in London, particularly as aspirations change and our staff start to look beyond sharing with friends to having a home and raising a family, are exacerbated by the length of training and rising university fees. The reality is that after 5 years at university a typical architecture student can build up a debt of at least £100,000 which is simply not sustainable. There needs to be a radical change to the way architecture is taught starting with consolidating the course into a tighter timeframe and opportunities for work-based learning.

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