Broke don’t fix

13/12/14 20:47

Architectural education is broken. How many times have we heard that?

Usually we hear it from partners in architectural practices who take on a graduate – then realise how much technical ground they need to cover before the graduate becomes useful as a fee-earning drone.  But an architecture degree isn’t a vocational course which only teaches you how to detail buildings so that the water stays out and the heat stays in.  If it teaches you to think, you’ll be able to solve technical problems which haven’t even been conceived yet.

Sometimes we listen to the cry from students who decide that architecture isn’t for them – the stress of deadlines and crits weighs heavily, especially if you’ve left home for the first time, are struggling to earn money in a part-time job, also grappling with the subject of architecture – and trying to have a life, too.  For others the attractions of skateboarding, smoking joints and partying are too great.

Occasionally other voices are heard.  This piece was partly inspired by a chance discovery on the internet: I found someone railing against architectural education by mounting a campaign on the web.  They identified a high rate of re-sits and drop-outs from Part II architecture courses in the UK, and have used freedom of information requests to glean what they can from the architecture schools.

I suspect the campaigner has their own motivation for campaigning, years after they left the education system.  I believe they stumbled on the right conclusions, but for the wrong reasons; the F.O.I. figures themselves are only a symptom, not the cause, of people failing architecture.  Set against the campaign are thousands of staff in Britain’s architecture schools, and I fear the campaigner is standing outside the tent pissing in, whereas they might achieve more by climbing inside and pissing outwards.

Regardless, partners, students, campaigners alike are all asking the wrong question.  Access to education in the first place is a bigger issue.  You can only make something of the architecture course, or realise it’s not for you, once you get through the front door. 

During the mid-1990’s, one of my fellow students came from the Ardler area of Dundee – a large housing scheme with a mix of council, housing association and private houses.  Back in the day it had a poor reputation, although as the tower blocks came down and the area was regenerated, that improved.  At her interview to get onto the architecture course, my friend was told, “We don’t get many folk from your background here”.

The lecturer’s comment has haunted me for years.  It reflects the fact that the architecture school is a middle class ghetto.   We no longer accept discrimination on the basis of gender, colour or creed – and during the 1990’s we were told that society would become more egalitarian.  Still, access to education in today’s Britain comes down to your parents having the money to pay for it.

The student grant withered under Thatcher and finally died during the early 1990’s.  Student Loans followed, and now tuition fees and graduate taxes affect other parts of Britain.  In an egalitarian society, you’d expect that the profession would have men and women from every social background.  But I have a horrible feeling that increasingly those who study architecture, and those for whom they design, are a privileged few.

Beyond the observation that access to education costs money, the problem is more fundamental.  It’s actually access to literacy.  A few times, I’ve visited someone and discovered that their children are being brought up in a house without books.  I crumble inside when I see that.  To progress in the world you have to break into the formidable cartel which literacy and scholarship has built over the past few centuries.

A study published in the journal “Research Stratification and Mobility” (2010) found that having books around the house, even unread, correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete.  Living with 500 or more books was as great an advantage of having university-educated parents.  But both university education and books correlate more strongly with family income now, than they did twenty or thirty years ago.

Education is a road in to civilisation, because it provides us with the necessary intellectual and cultural equipment to take part in society.  As Richard Hoggart's “The Uses of Literacy” points out, it also enable you to have some influence over the course of your own life.  So if we reach a point where no-one from lower income families makes it into architecture school, then architecture schools haven’t failed (as the campaigner thinks) – but society has failed.

That is the most scandalous waste of all: not to drop out aged 21 when the course gets too tough, nor that you struggle at 18 to pay for university, but that as a child of four or five years old, your chances of entering further education are already slim.  The biggest problem with architectural education isn’t how the courses are run – but that access to them has little to do with talent or aptitude.

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