University Education: Going with the Flow

The announcement by Cambridge University that it is to close its part II architecture degree course is very sad. But it is the start of more to come as changes ripple through the world of education and practice.

Jack Pringle, the RIBA’s hard-working vice-president for education, has kept close to the concerns of universities. He believes that the misguided definition of “research” used to judge university quality counts against architecture as the research component of design is not recognised. He fears that the Russell group of top universities may pull out of architectural education as it drags their research ratings down.

But the debacle over defining research is not the only threat to architectural schools. The five-year course pattern is just looking too expensive, too generic and too academic for tomorrow’s young people. Why saddle yourself with five years’ debts to enter a low-paid profession when you could join a better paid one after three years? Why educate everyone to be an architectural GP when roles in the built environment are diversifying? Why go on with a second architectural degree as a non-vocational one when the demand for “training” rather than education is powerful?

It would not be surprising to see young people increasingly joining offices after part I and then seeking to do parts II and III while working. Offices will get drawn in to supporting graduates if they want good recruits, either by paying their debts, boosting their joining salaries or supporting part-time part II course attendance. The intelligent choice for practices would be to get back into the training business, teaming with academics and running “teaching practices” in the mode of the late George Grenfell-Baines’s Sheffield experiment.

A new horizon opens up for the masters degree if we look at the way the industry is evolving. Graduates from architectural, engineering, surveying, construction, planning, landscape and design backgrounds can all cross over into each other’s spheres with well chosen masters’ courses. They can also move into management, construction management, development or facilities work, in early or mid-career. Sustainability, historic conservation, urban design, health planning, value management, are also subjects now offering careers to entrants from cognate and non-cognate disciplines. I love this academic buzzword “cognate” – it means having relevant educational background.

A future can be sketched where lifelong learning starts with a three-year degree, then mixes with working life in a pattern of options which deeply involve practitioners and qualifying institutions. For the institutions this challenge is also a fundamental matter. The RIBA will need to move past one definition of an “architect” able to wear the affix. It is already welcoming affiliate members from other built environment disciplines. Soon it will need to recognise many types of architect, as medicine sees all kinds of specialists. The implication that any architect can do it all will be as inappropriate as assuming an ear, nose and throat man can do cosmetic surgery.

Whatever happens, however, practice will have to foot the bill. How it could do that is the subject of another column.

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