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Call For Change: Everything That's Wrong With Our Architecture Courses (And How To Fix Them)

The people have spoken. Or at least, the students of UK universities have, and they have confirmed what has long been suspected: Architecture courses are currently too long, too expensive, and don’t provide the rounded learning experience necessary for students to transition smoothly from college to the realities of professional practice.

In a new survey carried out by the Architects’ Journal, 64 percent of students believed that the pathway to becoming a registered architect should be shortened. Indeed, 55 percent of students called for the UK’s 3-part, 7-year system to be scrapped in favor of a quicker format. Considering the up to 8 year lag time in the US and other countries between entering architecture school and practicing, it could be argued that this grievance is of universal scale.

Tuition fee protests in London, 2010

This consensus comes as no surprise following the dramatic increase in university fees seen in Great Britain: An architecture degree can now cost each student from £45,000 to £54,000, depending on which institution they choose. Whilst these costs might pale in comparison to certain US institutions, the increased fees have caused many people from low and middle-income families to think twice about committing to a course of such length and expense. This has lead to fears that the profession will become more elitist, with only those benefiting from strong financial support feeling able to make the hefty investment in their architectural education.

Most telling of all though, were the comments on course content, with harsh words for the experience gained over such a marathon academic route. Scott Bearman, a Part 3 student from Manchester School of Architecture, commented: “The current system of five years in university – with a heavy emphasis on design – fails to properly prepare students for the realities of working in practice. Students leave university poorly prepared, without the tools to effectively manage projects, and still face a minimum of two years before they qualify."

RIBA Headquarters, London, UK

It is essential that Bearman’s words are read and re-read by the incoming RIBA President, Jane Duncan. According to the AJ survey, the list of topics that students said they wish they had been taught during their course fall closely in line with his concerns. Areas they believed should have been covered in greater depth included:

  • Technical detailing
  • Project budget constraints and time frames
  • Understanding politics and how it affects architects
  • Dealing with contractors and speaking to clients
  • How to give presentations
  • Practice management

These points are notable for their relevance to the realities of practice, rather than the theoretical, academic realm of university life. Unsurprisingly, the same students that held these views valued practical work experience – 82 percent regarded it as vital in gaining the skills needed for their post-graduation career, with 80 percent supporting the current year out as a way of gaining that experience.

So, where do we go from here? As a young architect that navigated the British 3-part system, I have direct experience and agree with the majority of views emanating from the Architectural Journal’s survey. The three major concerns – course length, expense, and content – are complex issues for which there are no quick fixes. However, here are some ideas that could begin to address the problems and lead to a more valuable and productive program of education for our future architects…

Course Length

The consensus that the UK’s conventional 7-year course structure is too long supports Royal Institute of British Architects’ latest plans to scrap the current 3-part system in favour of an integrated 5-year course. Should it be pushed through, the more concise degree structure would echo with the pathway to licensure currently available in Germany and other mainland European countries.While this move could prove beneficial, it is crucial that practical work experience is not compromised by this compressed format. Options for the better incorporation of practical experience include the possibility of part-time architectural “residencies,” in which students could shadow professionals in practice for 1-2 days a week, supplementing their theoretical and studio work at university throughout the 5 years.

Course Cost

The above change in system would address some concerns regarding the individual costs of architectural education, but could there be further possibilities to support students on their way to licensure? First, there is the debate over the increase in university fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year in 2010, and whether this should ever have occurred in the first place – if everyone benefits from an educated society, why burden each individual with the cost in its entirety?

Your view on this will likely hinge upon your political preferences, but I for one would accept higher taxation if I could be assured the money were going to support those navigating their way through higher education – including architecture courses. Another option could involve sponsorship from practices, repaid in the form of loyalty by working for the contributing firm for a set amount of time post-graduation.

Construction workshop at IE University, Spain

Course Content

The most crucial area of all to be addressed is surely this – that students feel so unprepared for professional practice comes as little surprise given academics’ preoccupation with architectural theory and concept design. The main issue revolves around the fact that project briefs are often presented in isolation, with students having no need to collaborate with anyone other than their own architectural peers.

What if they were given the opportunity to work in tandem with engineering students for structural experiments, or even made to construct a small-scale project with apprentices learning trade skills such as bricklaying and carpentry? The merging of disciplines at university stage would benefit all parties involved, and go some way to mimicking the real world, where consultants and contractors must be managed and coordinated to deliver the client’s brief on schedule and within the budget.

Clearly, there are issues to be ironed out with each of these options, pertaining primarily to funding, organization, and the importance of maintaining the rigor of the course so that the strength of the profession is not diluted. What is certain, however, is that we must question a course structure which has remained virtually unchanged for half a century.What do you think – time for a shake-up?

Yours academically,

The Angry Architect

Images via: Architizer