Dramatic shifts are being planned for the way students learn to become architects, as the RIBA and ARB look at different routes to qualification, how to deliver experience, rebalancing specific knowledge and skill sets and CPD, writes Eleanor Young
There are important changes coming to architectural education. They will affect the whole profession – both students and practitioners, and those who teach and mentor them.
How students are taught – the balance of specific knowledge to skills, the support young would-be architects will need in practice and the requirements for continuing to learn and keep up to date – are up for grabs over the next year or so. On the way, there are uncertainties to be debated about funding the cost of courses, whether new routes would affect student loans and fees and how courses are approved by the RIBA and the Architects Registration Board (ARB).
The RIBA launched an education white paper at the beginning of this year, and brought together educators, students, practitioners and the ARB for a discussion day at Portland Place in London. The ARB itself has launched the second in its round of consultations on the shape of architectural education with new proposals. And a consultation of ARB’s plans for continuing professional education has just closed.
In many ways it is surprising that change in architectural education has taken so long coming. The vexed question of how to become a registered architect and how long it takes has been a live debate for many years.
Opening up routes to qualification
‘We need different routes of coming into architecture at different speeds. It is not a one-size-fits-all profession,’ says RIBA president Simon Allford. He draws on his experience not just in practice but also of innovative ways of delivering architectural education as trustee for the London School of Architecture – which closely mixes practice and study. He sees the possibilities of technicians, engineers or other design professionals wanting to convert to architecture – but without starting back at the beginning with many years more study and the associated costs. Indeed, the 2015 RIBA Education Review, which took place under his watch as vice president of education, suggested breaking the rigid structure which now takes an average of 10 years to qualification. The review suggested shorter study periods, more flexible study and earn as you learn (perhaps reducing student debt).
Since that time we have had a closer pairing of practice and learning, not only at the London School of Architecture, which embeds students in practices for three working days a week, but also with the University of Sheffield’s Collaborative Practice course that works closely with its partner practices. The RIBA continues to offer its long-established office-based RIBA Studio, delivered by Oxford Brookes University. Other formal mixes of teaching and practice also exist, like the practice placements at the University of Bath. Notably we have also seen the launch of apprenticeships, which have been driven by leading practices and changed the dynamic at undergraduate (Level 6, part 1) and masters (Level 7, part 2) bringing universities and employers more closely together.
In many ways it is surprising that change in architectural education has taken so long coming
No more part 1, 2, 3
The ARB proposals suggest dismantling parts 1, 2 and 3. ARB chief executive Hugh Simpson emphasises the mandate from consultees in earlier rounds, citing feedback on the inefficiency of the current system and the 61% who agreed in the consultation that parts 1, 2 and 3 need to change. The point of registration would change, as could the route to it.
The regulator would focus on auditing the individual’s competencies at the point of registration, looking for assurance from whatever organisation or institution might award them a qualification confirming that a specific set of learning outcomes have been met. These outcomes would be both academic- and practice-based.
So an undergraduate degree, not necessarily prescribed by the ARB or even in architecture, topped by an additional course – so long as specified academic and practice outcomes were included – would be sufficient proof for registration under these proposals. The first registered architects trained under this system would reach practice in the 2030s.
However, getting the practice experience and learning right may still be a problem. At the RIBA event earlier this year, professional studies advisors, who oversee part 3 at universities, gave an insight into the importance of collaboration between teachers and practices. A Part 3 student survey from the University of Westminster highlighted that 15% of its students were not assigned a mentor in practice and 43% only met their mentors every three months. Anecdotally, even getting professional experience development records (PEDRs) signed off could be tricky in some practices while getting the right range of experience in practice was another problem for Part 3 students. Meanwhile, off stage, practitioners talked of student workers unable to hit the ground running and the huge cost to their practice of students’ lack of software and technical construction knowledge. It doesn’t seem clear that the ARB proposals will address these tensions and the important role of practitioners in education.
Architectural knowledge or skills?
What is clear is that the ARB is using learning outcomes to be checked at the point of registration as a first line of defence in its role of ensuring architects’ competence. With architects the only regulated profession in a construction industry largely responsible for the deaths at Grenfell Tower in 2017, life safety is number one on the agenda. And the recent strengthening of the ARB’s powers and initial moves to ensure fire and life safety and sustainability is part of the professional competence has had that largely in mind. Other areas of focus for the learning outcomes will be sustainability, technology and business skills.
But even on life safety architects are not expected to know everything immediately. Simpson emphasised that an architect’s competence on day one was mindset as well as knowledge, that they should be ‘consciously incompetent’ – that is, they should ‘know what they don’t know’.
RIBA director of education and learning Jenny Russell says: ‘We need graduates who are agile, confident and team workers – who are not just competent, but significantly, have the adaptability and ability to deal with changing competences in an increasingly diverse field.’
As consultees read through the learning outcomes outlined in the ARB consultation document they will be able to see if it sets in stone certain pieces of knowledge – which may quickly date – or opens up the skillset. As Allford explains: ‘The issues we are facing now are different from those 10 years ago. We have to equip graduates with skills: how to interrogate a contract; how to understand cost models; the concept of gravity and building physics. It is about analysis: we don’t know the answer to a lot of things and have to keep reviewing them – as they change.’
Other areas of focus for the learning outcomes will be sustainability, technology and business skills
It costs more for universities to deliver part 1 and 2 courses than students from the home countries pay in fees in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland there is an even lower fee cap and in Scotland, where Scottish students don’t pay fees, this presents an even more difficult situation.
The proposed additions to the ARB criteria are likely to require additional specialist content for many schools, possibly further increasing the cost of delivery.
Additional government funding above the fees depends on the academic band a subject sits in. Architecture as a subject has a cost base similar to many of the professional subjects in higher funding bands, such as engineering. Rebanding architecture could bring in an additional £20million into the sector.
The RIBA is launching research to back its calls to government for additional funding so that UK university architecture courses remain some of the best in the world and continue to produce the brightest and best architectural talent.
Jenny Russell, RIBA director of education and learning