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Why practice and teaching need to converge

Ben Derbyshire

Outgoing president Ben Derbyshire offers his thoughts on the state, and the future, of architectural education

Among the many frustrations brought about by the protracted nature of the Brexit negotiations has been the moratorium imposed by MHCLG on the long overdue Routes to Registration review of architectural education. In my RIBAJ column in April 2018, written jointly with the then chair of ARB, Nabila Zulqifar, we shared a commitment to a review of the programme and curriculum that would-be architects are offered. Now she has moved on, and in the final weeks of my own tenure at RIBA, we must both leave this task to our successors. But with Alan Jones as President and Nicky Watson as Vice President Education I am confident of progress.

I’m often asked whether I believe we are producing too many architects and whether the excess supply drives down remuneration. My answer to that thorny question is not that we should impose quotas on school places. Instead we must continuously raise standards – for entry, at examination and in professional practice. In so doing, we must ensure a socially diverse entry and that the curriculum is perceived by students as being relevant, adding value to their career aspirations and to addressing social challenges.

We should pay closer attention to the progression rates for architectural education, nurturing progression among BAME students and women in particular. The numbers fall for both groups, especially after Part 1, with a half of all students or more ultimately failing to register. Some educators defend this on the basis that the architectural degree is a good general education. I worry about that claim given the curriculum is often actually largely vocational in content.

My term of office has brought me into contact with many of our talented students. Their ability in critical thinking, creativity, innovation and communication skills is remarkable. But there are two aspects of some of the work that trouble me.

First, how is that we seem to revel in the absurd obscurity, especially at Part 2, of some of the design briefs and research themes? This is defended on grounds that the content is less significant than the skills acquired during the process. I’m not so sure!

My other concern is the impenetrable language that surrounds much of the presentation. ‘Archispeak’, as it is often called, is a widespread phenomenon that seems to originate in education and inhibits communication in the world of practice. This obsession with an exclusive lexicon militates against winning the hearts and minds of the society we serve.

We need the worlds of practice and teaching to converge, challenging and supporting a common purpose, with a shared language focused on the needs of society. This necessitates finding ways to attract more practitioners into teaching, with less insistence on PhDs and more recognition of practice-based research among educators. We also need to improve the relationship between the institute and educators. The Future Architects Network, initiated by the student and associate members of RIBA Council, certainly should help with that.

Having said I must leave driving change to others, I’ll end with my personal view, which is that the profession needs to adopt a much more rigorous approach to life-long learning if it is to thrive. We must consolidate areas of competence in sustainable construction, technology and regulation to enable diversification of our clientele and adaption to rapid technological change. The notion of a once-and-for-all education, capable of imbuing career-long professional competence in the manner of the classic The Honeywood File, is no longer remotely appropriate.

Recent changes to digitise the RIBA’s Professional Development record should be taken even further, building a compulsory framework of CPD modules consisting of updates and refresher courses as well as a broad curriculum of new areas of study. That way, we can continue to build confidence in the value of a contribution that is up to the minute, effective and ethical.

Meanwhile, it would be no surprise if the academic institutions were overwhelmed by a growing demand for the apprenticeships in architecture and other forms of combined employment and learning. During the development of architectural apprenticeships that were formally approved last year, those of us who were participating in the ‘trailblazer’ stage found that 80% of our Part 1 students chose ‘earn as you learn’ when asked which route they would prefer to final qualification. Straws in the wind, I’d say.

I’m indebted to Alan Jones and Nicky Watson for their comments and contributions to this column.

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