The response in some quarters to the Future Architects Front’s concerns reflects a profession with work to do to improve its practices and image, writes Eleanor Jolliffe
A couple of weeks ago, a grassroots campaign among architectural students, the Future Architects Front, sent an open letter to the RIBA highlighting and protesting at exploitative employment practices and disjointed educational policy in UK architectural practice. It was based on a survey of over 150 architectural students in December last year and was signed by more than 1,800 people. Their demands of the RIBA were that it:
- End unpaid overtime in RIBA chartered practices
- Provide effective oversight in the architectural assistant role
- Greater transparency in the RIBA’s budget and spending decisions
- Establish a more representative governing body
- Accountability for exploitative work environments
The letter and attached anonymised experiences make for sobering reading. They make me grateful for the comparatively smooth ride I have had in my most formative years of practice.
No one’s experience is perfect but my odd late night does not compare to “90-hour weeks… messages at 3am asking to do drawings”; “[not being provided with] a work contract”; “work for only transport costs paid” or “a partner of the firm refusing to call me by my actual first name “because it is too difficult”. I won’t continue as this is not the purpose of this comment piece but I would encourage everyone who reads this to read and reflect on the letter.
Some have sought to write this off as moaning/entitled youth who don’t know how to work hard. I would respectfully suggest they are wrong. The few examples I pulled out above do not seem unreasonable complaints to me, and they are far from the exception.
Besides salary and working hours, one of the major concerns of the students is the practice of employers seeking part I and II architectural assistants “with experience” in job adverts. Commercially of course this may make sense as it is much easier for a practice to hire someone with experience than to train someone fresh from university. However, it flies in the face of the reason the roles exist – to train new architects.
I would prefer to belong to a profession that took its future seriously; and this means proper consideration of who will ’carry the torch’ next
Personally, I would prefer to belong to a profession that took its future seriously; and this means proper consideration of who will “carry the torch” next. Someone took a chance on all of us once; let’s not pull up the ladder behind us.
The reliance of the practices in many of these examples on unpaid overtime also concerns me – not only on humanitarian grounds, but in terms of the health of the profession. Any practice relying on unpaid labour is a failing business by definition, and if this is even a significant minority of the profession we should all be worried about the future of our jobs. The same is true of course, to some extent, of practices seeking only students “with experience”.
The cumulative impression of the FAF accounts is of practices making short-term self-interested decisions with minimal consideration of the wider picture or well-being of the profession. I have never run a practice, and I know this is a difficult economy, but surely the overall health, wellbeing and reputation of the profession should be of concern to us all? A poorly trained and burnt-out profession will not last.
I approached the RIBA for a comment for this column. RIBA president Alan Jones expressed thanks to FAF for “gathering and sharing these concerning experiences and insights” and said that the body was “keen to discuss what more the RIBA can do to minimise the issues that have been raised”.
He further stated that chartered practices “[have requirements] through the RIBA code of practice includ[ing] responsibilities to create fair, safe and equitable working environments for everyone”. The RIBA informed me that, since the introduction of the code of practice in 2017, it has received 27 formal complaints against the nearly 4,000 chartered practices.
Seven were referred to a hearing and, of those seven, one concerned potential employment issues. That case was dismissed by the hearing panel.
Since 2017 no chartered practices have yet been suspended or expelled. This paints a very different picture to that described by the FAF students. I do not directly question or doubt either source but I would suggest there is a missing link somewhere.
Before our current university system, architects were trained in apprenticeships in practice, supplemented by evening classes of some sort. Some practices, such as John Soane’s, took this educational role seriously; others did not, using the pupillage fees to prop up unviable practices and providing very little training.
Without exact evidence I hesitate to say exactly the same of any of the practices the FAF students gave accounts of, but I cannot help but see parallels. In 1847 the students took matters into their own hands, starting a study club that was later to become the AA. By 1855 they had succeeded in lobbying the RIBA to bring in some levels of educational reform and by 1861 there were compulsory examinations for RIBA membership – this standardisation beginning the end of the pupillage system and driving higher standards in education.
It took time to drive this educational reform through, partly as the RIBA council at the time was aware how many of its members relied on the incomes from the pupillage fees. As we know from our current university system the RIBA and its members in the 1850s and 60s did not “win” this fight.
There have been similar murmurings of educational reform in the current profession for years. Let’s hope that, when the history books are written about the 2020s, the established profession comes out of it looking a little less ridiculously self-interested.
Full statement from Alan Jones
“Thanks to the Future Architects Front for gathering and sharing these concerning experiences and insights.
We are committed to listening, contributing to wider systemic change and raising our standards, where RIBA can, to protect and support its student, graduate and chartered members. We are keen to discuss what more the RIBA can do to minimise the issues that have been raised, and ensure that within the profession, every chartered practice is diverse, inclusive and committed to nurturing graduate talent.
We recognise the career development challenges faced by architectural assistants and the longstanding issues of low fees and profitability, business skills, salaries, long hours and overtime. The requirements set for our members and almost 4,000 chartered practices through the RIBA code of practice include responsibilities to create fair, safe and equitable working environments for everyone – but the evidence clearly suggests that these standards are not always cutting through to the whole profession, to the detriment of those members at the start of their careers.
We are about to trial the new RIBA Compact – an ethical framework for graduates, chartered practice employers and our validated architecture schools; this is designed to structure, improve and enhance the trajectory into and through chartered practice. More work needs to be done and I am looking forward to meeting with Future Architects Front. I feel confident we can work together to develop understanding and solutions, which improve the experience both of those entering the workplace, and graduates already established in RIBA practices.”