Freedom to fail is route to success for Oxford Brookes

Words:
Eleanor Young

Remote, independent learning and apprenticeships are a critical part of Oxford Brookes’ way of making inclusion real

Model making alongside Design Engine’s atrium at Oxford Brookes School of Architecture.
Model making alongside Design Engine’s atrium at Oxford Brookes School of Architecture. Credit: Nick Kane

‘As an undergraduate I struggled with living and other costs. I wouldn’t want to do that again,’ says Kudzai Chirimuuta. She is one of the first cohort of apprentice-trained architects who took their places here last year. Working at Foster and Partners while studying one day a week, she will have her Part 2 and Part 3 under her belt in four years. ‘I don’t see university as a “negative debt” but you notice that there are students who have money to make amazing models while you have to make do with cardboard.’ She continues: ‘I feel apprenticeships level that out; I’m working so I can afford to pay for it. And I am working on projects at the same time and getting real life skills.’

Kudzai Chirimuuta is an alumni of the Stephen Lawrence Trust but was still having doubts about her future in architecture – whether she could study enough and work part time to support her Part 2 or if she should go in a different direction. Now she is settled into the programme at Oxford Brookes and looking enjoying the fast paced mix of studying and working – ‘you can’t be precious, you have to be quick thinking and critical, as in an office’ – and the interchange of ideas between projects and studying. 

Inclusion as more than just policy

Many schools talk about independence, most universities will have policies on inclusion. At Oxford Brookes three course areas are really driving towards different routes to the profession, appealing very directly to students who want to be architects, rather than want to study architecture. Live projects, RIBA Studio for Part 1 and 2 and apprenticeship courses show different ways of making an architect. 

Not that you would know it when you arrive at the school. On the Headington campus on the London Road west out of Oxford a plaza opens up to the civic heart of Brookes, the CorTen arcade and cheery coloured panels quickly lead to the school’s Abercrombie Building, refurbished and extended by Design Engine. You are immediately confronted with a deep chasm of an atrium. Around the edges of the top two floors, partitions are dragged roughly around studio spaces. But the most innovative education actually happens remotely on live projects on sites in Oxford and Lebanon, RIBA Studio in offices and at kitchen tables around the country and apprenticeships in offices of major practices around London. 

  • Oxford Brookes’ apprenticeship students at the first intensive section of the course.
    Oxford Brookes’ apprenticeship students at the first intensive section of the course. Credit: WestonWilliamson+Partners
  • After effectively seven days work on his apprenticeship this is the work of Billy Taylor. Pictured is a new type of distribution hub that can act as infrastructure for ‘PrimAir’ drone deliveries across London.
    After effectively seven days work on his apprenticeship this is the work of Billy Taylor. Pictured is a new type of distribution hub that can act as infrastructure for ‘PrimAir’ drone deliveries across London.
  • First year live projects – a treehouse for Stansfield Park. Kimberley Lau’s axonometric
    First year live projects – a treehouse for Stansfield Park. Kimberley Lau’s axonometric
  • First year live projects – a treehouse for Stansfield Park. Jessica Gardner’s models.
    First year live projects – a treehouse for Stansfield Park. Jessica Gardner’s models.
  • First year live projects – a treehouse for Stansfield Park. Jessica Gardner’s models.
    First year live projects – a treehouse for Stansfield Park. Jessica Gardner’s models.
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There are three universities already running apprenticeship courses. It looks like a no brainer for students, particularly at Part 2 where they have already had the student experience. ‘I just wanted to be focused,’ says Chirimuuta. The student draws a salary and pays no tuition fees and large practices (those with salary bills of over £3 million) are already paying an apprenticeship levy and in return receive funds for training and a government top up. Smaller practices can also take advantage of apprenticeships by paying just 10% of the cost of the training – and, of course, releasing their staff for study. 

Research time for practices

Brookes has set out its stall as effectively offering research time to practices in the form of student projects. It is also working on co-bidding for research grants. The driven Karl Kjelstrup-Johnson established the ­programme. ‘Practices define a real world problem and they get support from academia for this low risk research,’ he explains. Students intersperse regular private study with other apprentices and intensive weeks at host practices in London. This year there were 17 students, next year perhaps twice as many – but no more says Kjelstrup-Johnson.

These less university-based routes into the profession are not really new. The RIBA Studio has been running for over a century. It has appeared in these pages before with students attesting to the value of being able to work in practice and direct their own study. Rising Star Anna Howell of JTP took it for Part 2 – choosing a tutor with a very different outlook to her own, Mary Duggan, an experience that both found rewarding. Brookes has run RIBA Studio for over a decade now. Tutors and mentor are both chosen by the student. Students need to be already working for a practice and so start with a certain knowledge, often from a technician, model-making or artistic background. They come out with a Part 1 or Part 2 but not the corresponding degree or diploma. 

Building for real

What is new is a year long foundation course – starting this August – that builds on the elements that often exclude the less privileged, including black and ethnic minorities, from degrees: confidence, networking and portfolios. ‘Much of the first year is spent unlocking students to give them the freedom to fail, after years of working for marks and scores,’ says Maria Faraone, who runs RIBA Studio.

One way Brookes is working on this is by throwing students in at the deep end with live projects. ‘They begin on day one of year one,’ says Jane Anderson, undergraduate programme lead and co-founder of the Live Projects Network. ‘In the first four weeks they will have designed and built a project for a real client.’ This year it was for local education charity, the Oxford Trust. Starting with elements of the building, a shortlist of four are now putting their ideas together. It is an ethos that goes through the school, in the form of consultation and events as well as more typical live projects which involve building – taken to Lebanon by students on the International Architectural Regeneration and Development masters degree. Another project looked at a digital wellbeing hub at the local John Radcliffe Hospital, building prototypes in the school’s atrium. First year students who worked on it are consolidating the experience as they move into the second year.

These diverse studying experiences from Brookes are a reminder that architectural education is changing, perhaps for the better. 

Find more information on apprenticeships at architecture.com/apprenticeships


METRICS
Students Part 1 360. Other – interior architecture: 65 
Students Part 2 193
Students RIBA Studio Part 1  41. Part 2 121
Students apprenticeships Part 2 and 3 (Level 7) 17
Studio floor area 1,466m2 (2.37m2/student)
Tutors per student: 
Year 1
  1: 22 
Vertical Design Unit (Years 2 + 3) 3: 24 
MArch 2/3 13/14 
Apprenticeships 4:17 

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