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Architectural apprenticeships close gap between education and workplace

Eleanor Young

More architecture schools are now offering apprenticeships courses – here’s what is available

Masterplan for Split by University of Bath students.
Masterplan for Split by University of Bath students. Credit: Thomas Lowe, Yee Wei Gan, Yuchen Mei, Stephen Oldham, Hugh Pearce, Sam Bunn

In 2017 Foster and Partners and other larger practices found themselves facing the new apprenticeship levy, which affects all UK employers with annual salary bills of more than £3 million. The levy is 0.5% of that bill; Foster’s alone pays about £250,000 into it each year. The government’s aim is to bring education and the workplace closer together. Apprenticeships could widen access to architecture and get students fully qualified faster and with less debt. Only a handful of apprenticeship courses ran last year but gradually more schools of architecture are coming up with offerings.

Levy-paying practices can recoup it in apprenticeship training. Smaller firms can also access the training for a contribution of 5% of the fees, which is £1,050 for most courses. The apprentice themselves are not allowed to pay fees and are also employees, drawing a salary and released from their duties to study for 20% of their time.

When Foster’s senior partner and head of human resources Charlotte Sword researched apprenticeships in other disciplines, there was plenty of advice that they were cheapest to write it off as a business expense. But Foster decided to invest, in the hope of increasing the diversity of the profession – and gaining ground in the battle for talent in the face of Brexit and a more insular labour market. Sword chaired the Architects Trailblazer group of architect-employers working with the ARB and the RIBA to set up the parameters for architectural apprenticeships but this was just the start. She was aware of the need for architect-mentors in the office, provision for apprentice salaries, regular review meetings and internal support including logging time on intensive courses and study leave to allow resource planning.

Foster has had four apprentices in 2018/19. ‘We are very happy with them,’ says Sword. ‘They are very productive.’ The six Foster studios are keen to recruit more for next year and so the practice is approaching Part 1 students as well as advertising the vacancies. The apprentices have to be employed as well as satisfying the university entry level. ‘The provision of courses is the limiting factor at the moment,’ says Sword. Foster opted for intensive courses, rather than day release, and its apprentices study with Oxford Brookes. The practice has also been instrumental in encouraging other schools of architecture to look at apprenticeship courses.

Architectural apprenticeships are set at two levels. Level 6 is the same as an undergraduate degree and Part 1 and is currently only offered by London South Bank University. ‘Level 6 is the real means to examine the issues of inclusivity and diversity,’ say David Gloster, RIBA director of education. ‘It allows the profession to make the choices of who will enter the profession, because it is about employment.’

There is a little more choice of courses at Level 7. This includes Parts 2 and 3 over three or four years of work and study, including a six-month period self study before an ‘end point assessment’. The first batch of Level 7 courses offered were from London South Bank, Northumbria University, De Montfort University and Oxford Brookes. The slow wheels of academic processes are grinding towards more universities launching apprenticeships – although you won’t find many on the approved list of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, nor on the ARB’s list of prescribed courses. That is another process again. The RIBA has taken a pragmatic approach, looking at different pathways through existing courses, as most apprenticeships are, thus not requiring an entirely new validation process.

James Campbell, incoming head of architecture at the University of Cambridge, has just announced an all-new apprenticeship course from 2020. He points out that such courses have obvious risks for the university as they are subject to government changes. But he urges other schools to establish their own architectural apprenticeships. Discussing why there is such a limited range of courses on offer, he says: ‘I think it is short-sighted; apprenticeships are one of the obvious ways to architectural education, especially for those who want to go into practice. It is a really exciting alternative to full time.’

The chance to earn while studying and emerge without long term debt would be enough to sell the idea to many students. But there are other bonuses. ‘The exciting thing is the relationship between tutor, practice mentor and student,’ says Andrew Bourne of the University of the West of England. The process mandates four meetings a year between the three parties. ‘As a traditional graduate you don’t get that level of commitment from tutor and employer. This is a more mature way to challenge and support students.’

Will it be a second class architectural education? The word ‘apprenticeships’ has confused some people. Foster’s Sword is at pains to reassure apprentices that they will come out with the same qualifications, as well as ‘shed-loads of work experience’. Some worry that the immersion of the traditional studio will be lost, but Oxford Brookes and a couple of new courses seem to recognise the importance of this intensity. And two of the most highly ranked schools in England, University of Bath and University of Cambridge, have got apprenticeships almost ready to launch. Interestingly, both are offering ones that depend on block release rather than day release.

Ensuring the structure works for both practices and apprentices is critical. At a time when there is an increased focused on mental health, expecting students to deal with the competing pressures of school and practice on a weekly basis seems set to create extra tensions. UWE’s Bourne admits the hours are not spelt out where the course consists of two days a week during term time alongside practice. But the expectations have to be ‘sensible’. ‘The agreement between the three has to be respectful of what each party needs.’ Block release – while allowing concentration on either study or work – has its own complexities, particularly for those studying at a distance; many Bath and Cambridge students are likely to be drawn from practices in the capital. For resource planning, however, it may be easier and reduce the competing demands of work and study. Certainly some of the schools – and Sword – feel that it will make for a better student experience and produce better work.

See below for more on architectural apprenticeship courses.

  • Students from the University of Bath are already applying their academic work in a live project context. Earlier this year one group prepared a masterplan for Split in Croatia and sent it to the city. Split’s development agency then invited and paid for the group to visit and present the proposals to the public and the university.
    Students from the University of Bath are already applying their academic work in a live project context. Earlier this year one group prepared a masterplan for Split in Croatia and sent it to the city. Split’s development agency then invited and paid for the group to visit and present the proposals to the public and the university. Credit: Thomas Lowe, Yee Wei Gan, Yuchen Mei, Stephen Oldham, Hugh Pearce, Sam Bunn
  • Model of University of Bath masterplan for Split.
    Model of University of Bath masterplan for Split. Credit: Thomas Lowe, Yee Wei Gan, Yuchen Mei, Stephen Oldham, Hugh Pearce, Sam Bunn
  • Masterplan for Split in Croatia by students from the University of Bath.
    Masterplan for Split in Croatia by students from the University of Bath. Credit: Thomas Lowe, Yee Wei Gan, Yuchen Mei, Stephen Oldham, Hugh Pearce, Sam Bunn

University of Bath: structure and collaboration

Since the architecture courses began at the University of Bath in 1966 they have integrated academic learning with periods in practice: in second, third and fifth years students spend one of the two annual semesters in practice, with visible cross fertilisation between school and practice. So the structure lends itself to apprenticeships.

It means the school already has an infrastructure for staff visiting students in practice – there are relationships with 300 practices with typically 250 students placed each year. This dovetails with the way apprenticeships are being offered at Parts 2 and 3. Head of architecture Alex Wright says: ‘Practices who have students on placements typically know they want such students to be part of their practice long term.’ Part 1 students are also experienced with that format, and of employer and school collaborating on their learning.

‘We didn’t want two different pathways, one with day release,’ says Wright. ‘Central to Bath’s pedagogy is studio-based learning and we were keen to establish an apprenticeship equivalent to the learning experience our full time students get.’ He also believes it will give apprentices a better chance at producing equally high quality studio projects for their portfolios than the day release model could.

This format demands academic time in 14-week blocks from students and their employers. Full time students get three academic semesters over two years, apprentices will do the same modules taught in the same way but over three years. It will be followed up by a part time Part 3.

Neatly, for the flexibility of both students and school, this structure means any spaces on the MArch can be taken up by either full timers or apprentices. It will be launched in autumn 2020 when all the approvals, including ARB’s, should hopefully be lined up.

Alex Wright,


University of the West of England: building on a part time course

The University of the West of England is building on its existing part time masters programme. During term apprentices will have two university days of contact time and studying a week. They will be taught in the same studios as part and full timers but take modules at different speeds over three years. The heaviest year, in credits and likely workload, is the second year.

UWE launched its Level 7 apprenticeship in April with a group of Bristol and Bath practices. ‘We have around 500 practices within commuting distance,’ says Andrew Bourne, associate head of department at UWE. Conversations continue with practices in Taunton, Exeter and Gloucester. The university’s traditional commuting ground of Wales is out of the picture for apprenticeships because of different funding arrangements.

UWE still has to jump through the hoops. Even with the support of a special university apprenticeship hub, Bourne is aware that a tripartite agreement, the conversations that go with it and the extra paperwork, are likely to slow things down a little. Early September is the cut off for applying for studying this year.


University of Cambridge: masterclasses

Apprentices at the University of Cambridge will become part of Queens’ College. But that is it for tradition, the course is new.

It will be taught as short residential courses, mostly two weeks long, in the university vacations. The plan is to pull in industry expertise with masterclasses on areas such as housing, urban design, computing and modelling. Throughout the emphasis is on team work and mirroring real world practice.

‘The masterclass is a different kind of project,’ says James Campbell, incoming head of architecture at Cambridge. ‘Think about practice, how often do you spend more than two weeks on a concept?’ The third year is a little more independent with the thesis project – which will give students the chance for their own studio work. Then follows 25 days over six months of self study and the end point assessment.

Campbell knows Cambridge has to work harder than other universities to prove it is affordable and hopes to get administrators to write off materials costs, including those of portfolios.

Apprentices will get a Master of Studies, as the university doesn’t currently have an MArch. The minimum number for the course is 20 and the current plan is for no more than 30, to ensure a successful masterclass. The university is on the lookout for a director for the course, which will run from autumn 2020.


Northumbria University: live and virtual

The apprenticeship at Northumbria University is a route through the full time MArch and shares non-design modules. The design projects are live to reflect the practical focus of the course. Northumbria’s Paul Jones, professor architectural scholarship, says: ‘We work with public sector organisations and charities and as a programme we are committed to building the student design projects where possible. In the first years of the apprenticeship we have worked with Gateshead Council on a housing project… our work has informed their approach to the site and received high praise from the executive. Other students have used live projects in their office; these have included heritage projects and visitor centres.’

The apprentices attend on day release. The course is being offered with virtual tutorials and filmed lectures beyond the North East, so university attendance is only required twice a semester for reviews. ‘We have piloted this approach this year,’ says Jones, ‘and it worked well. The students who weren’t from the region were very appreciative of the approach. In September we have students starting the apprenticeship who are working in London, Cambridge, Nottingham, the Lake District, and Yorkshire; all doing the apprenticeship at Northumbria.’

More details


London South Bank University: undergraduate and postgraduate

London South Bank University is the first – and only – provider to offer both undergraduate and postgraduate apprenticeships, building on its commitment to vocational education. Level 6 and level 7 are based on existing part time course and apprentices will work with full and part time students. Attendance is a regular day a week at university during the semesters. Apprentices on both levels concentrate on design modules one year with lecture-based modules the following year.

Level 6

Level 7

  • The University of Northumbria’s apprenticeship course focuses on live projects. In the first year students worked with Gateshead Council on a housing project for wellbeing, Brandling Eco Village. Their efforts won high praise from the council.
    The University of Northumbria’s apprenticeship course focuses on live projects. In the first year students worked with Gateshead Council on a housing project for wellbeing, Brandling Eco Village. Their efforts won high praise from the council. Credit: Harrison Lowthrop

Nottingham University: practice collaboration

The course is mapped onto the Part 2 MArch Collaborative Practice Research programme that has a specialism in practice-based research, and onto the existing Part 3. Both content and delivery are tried and tested for students who are following a mixed mode of study and work.

However, it is delivered over a longer time frame. The ‘Part 2’ is three days practice/two days academic study over a week, a split that is intended to allow a meaningful contribution to the employing practice and ensure sufficient time to engage with the academic content. Typically it is delivered in weekly one-day teaching blocks with a further day protected to reflect on content, develop understanding and tackle assessments.

Sessions are run from two centres, one at Nottingham University and one in London. The ‘Part 3’ component makes use of two or three day recall sessions where focused content is delivered in support of a passed set of reflective assessments. Group workshops at regular points in the academic year provide an opportunity for students to exchange experiences and receive support.

Graeme Barker,


More details of apprenticeships

Government apprenticeship information

Current providers

ARB Qualification search tool, and filter for apprenticeship, to check for more qualifications as they are prescribed.

RIBA Guidance


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