Student numbers give cause for optimism

Brian Green

Rising number of local enrolments should keep UK profession well supplied

Chart 1
Chart 1

The number of new full-time first-year students from the UK starting first-degree courses in architecture in UK institutions has risen by almost a fifth since 2012. Numbers enrolling in the academic year 2017/18 topped the levels hit in the peak years of 2008 and 2009.

There were fewer part-time starters in 2017/18, so the overall number of first-degree new starters has a smidgeon to climb before setting a new record (see Chart 1). But the pattern of strong growth seems established. For now, at least.

More importantly, the number of young UK citizens embarking on architecture degrees is about double what it was in 2000. This promises a bigger injection of new blood into the profession over the next few years.

According to data from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), in the 2017/18 academic year there were almost 25,000 architecture students in the UK, of whom almost a third were from overseas. The numbers show almost 16,400 first-degree students, more than 7,300 post-grads and a further 1,200 or so other undergraduates studying architecture.

Set that 25,000 against the 41,200 ARB-registered architects and the potential supply of new recruits into the profession looks reasonably sound, even allowing for those who drop out or who take their skills elsewhere.

The rise in number in recent years shadows rising activity in the construction industry and thus in work for architects.

Chart 2
Chart 2

Put the economic and student data together and they suggest that a fall in construction, and consequently architecture, workload isn’t a great incentive for would-be students of architecture living in the UK. Chart 2 tracks the change in UK-domiciled student starters with changes in construction and architectural & engineering activity – which, although much wider than architecture alone, is a reasonable indicator of work in construction-related professions.

The long-term trend in architectural activity is very much upward, as its share of the UK economy grows, and provides a strong case for increasing numbers of students. Interestingly, though, while construction’s share of the UK economy is flat over the long term, its short-term volatility does seem to have a big influence on the more immediate trends in the numbers enrolling on architecture degree courses.

The great news is that the long-term need for architects, and therefore students, seems well established.

UK’s academic institutions have increasingly become beacons for overseas students, receiving a huge boost more recently on the back of an expanding middle-class in China. In 2017/18 China accounted for 31% of first-year non-UK domiciled students.

  • Chart 3
    Chart 3
  • Chart 4
    Chart 4

The overseas proportion of full-time first-degree architecture courses is a shade under 30%, having grown steadily. However, growth is coming from outside the EU nations, as we see in Chart 3, which is not surprising given the influence of China. The number of overseas students from the EU has flatlined over this decade.

More than half of full-time post-graduate students in architecture are from overseas, though the proportion drops to 40% if part-time students, who predominantly live permanently in the UK, are added in. This undoubtedly marks the UK as a well-established and highly regarded seat of learning in the discipline.

Chart 4 illustrates how progress is being made towards gender balance, at least in the run-up to entering employment. Parity between male and female student numbers is within a hair’s breadth. Ten years ago, women made up below 40% of full-time architecture undergraduates in UK institutions. In 2000 it was about a third.

Although it is in no way inevitable, the trend points to a period where the balance in numbers of students may well shift in favour of women. How this will impact on the workplace, however, is a very different matter. But the cultural assumptions of young architects making their way into work will be very different.

Leaving aside broader attitudinal change within society, it seems reasonable to assume that studying in an environment where genders are broadly equal in number (as opposed to two-to-one in favour of men as it was before 2000) will influence attitudes to parity in the workplace.

Chart 5
Chart 5

One issue that has caused a level of anxiety more widely is that of grade inflation, and it seems architecture is not unaffected. Both the number and the proportion of firsts being attained by students of architecture is rising fast. Chart 5 shows how the share of first-class honours degrees awarded has more than doubled over a decade. In 2007 students were more likely to fail than get a first, in 2018 the outcome was 24.7% firsts and 5.2% unclassified.

More than two-thirds of students sitting architecture degrees in 2018 ended up with a first or upper second, compared with less than half 10 years earlier. Firsts and upper seconds now account for 70% of passes.

For those architecture students sitting finals, London remained the most likely location out of the regions and devolved nations of the UK. A shade under 18% of full-time first-degree architecture students were studying there in the academic year of 2107/18. That is pretty much the same share as five years earlier.

  • Staff and students from architecture and the built environment at UWE (Bristol), which  now tops the table for full-time first-degree architecture students. University of the West of England
    Staff and students from architecture and the built environment at UWE (Bristol), which now tops the table for full-time first-degree architecture students. University of the West of England
  • Chart 6
    Chart 6

Chart 6 shows the average share of full-time first-degree architecture students by region. The numbers can bounce about a bit year to year, so we have taken the latest two years 2016/18 and compared those figures with the two academic years 2012/14. The region that seems to have been most expanding its base of budding architects is the South West, which accounts for about half the UK growth in architecture students.

This is largely down to a big expansion in enrolment at the University of the West of England, on the outskirts of Bristol. It now tops the table for full-time first-degree architecture students, according to the HESA data.

When it comes to postgraduates, however, UCL comes out head and shoulders above other institutions with around 1,200 postgrads, of whom more than 1,000 are full-time.

Naturally the boost to our academic institutions from overseas students and the internationalist perspective so common in the world of architecture appear vulnerable to both Brexit and the wider anti-globalist populism that appears to support it. This may lead many to view the current numbers with some concern. And, it is hard to judge simply from the figures what the latest higher education data really mean for the future of architecture in the UK, or globally for that matter.

Ultimately the outpourings from universities are just people, with all their fortes, foibles and fancies. But judged solely on the data, there are many reasons to be optimistic.


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