The RIBA’s education review will offer substantive change but will it go far enough, fast enough, to satisfy the students and their future employers? Ben Flatman investigates

Ben Flatman

One of the few things on which most architecture students would agree is that the pathway to registration is too long, inflexible and, increasingly, expensive. The current tripartite qualification system is highly prescriptive and fails to offer the range of different options that today’s students urgently require. Although it’s theoretically possible to achieve registration in seven years, the average is just under 10. One consequence of this is that many part IIs simply never register. Debt levels among students have soared and, with student fees about to be uncapped, the cost of reaching registration is set to rocket even further.

Bartlett director Bob Sheil recently said the existing qualification system was putting up barriers for students from a disparate range of backgrounds while David Gloster, the RIBA’s director of education, told me that “the tripartite structure has not been helpful” and describes the UK’s peculiarly tortuous route to registration as a global “anomaly”.

Shockingly, for a profession that is supposed to be adept at addressing change, the last fundamental reassessment of architectural education in the UK was at the Oxford Conference in 1958. At that time, the emphasis was on “professionalising” architecture, and phasing out the wide range of courses still available through night schools and traditional pupillages. Academic entry requirements were raised, and vocational training frowned upon, at a time when the profession was seeking to match the perceived status of lawyers and doctors. The emphasis was on moving architectural education into universities, and properly regulated courses. Sixty years later, it seems that a return to a more diverse range of models might be what today’s students are crying out for.

Many in teaching and practice have long seen the current system as unfit for purpose, and yet calls for reform went unheeded for decades. Finally, in 2013, the RIBA announced the start of a formal review. It was intended to be a two-year process, but is already entering its fourth, with no fixed end date. Change doesn’t come easily or quickly in architectural education, and yet UK students are desperate for radical solutions to help reduce the massive pressures they now face.

Gloster says the RIBA is eager to open up the educational system to new models and that the schools have been receptive during the review. Schools such as Sheffield, Cambridge and the new London School of Architecture have all been experimenting with new and different approaches to studio and workplace-based learning – some for several years. So why don’t the proposed reforms go further, introducing a mix of fast-tracked credit-based, online and night courses? Why not a 100% workplace-based pathway or shorter conversion courses for those seeking a career change? Gloster alludes to the restraining hand of the professional regulators at Arb, and the wider context of EU regulation.

In part, the RIBA review was a response to a new EU directive on mutual recognition of professional qualifications, which stipulates that architectural training should comprise either five years of university-level training (“5+0”) or not less than four years of study supplemented by a supervised professional traineeship of a minimum of two years (“4+2”). The UK’s existing system (“5+2”) is effectively a combination of both models, making it one of the longest courses of study in the EU.

David Gloster points out that any significant post-Brexit move away from the EU directive would endanger the existing mutual recognition of qualifications and potentially reduce the attractiveness of UK schools to EU students. But even within the EU rules, there is scope to reduce the length of course from 7 to 6, or even 5 years – something the RIBA review has chosen not to recommend. The most radical proposal of the review is therefore not to reduce the length of study required, but to create a single “integrated” 7-year pathway, which leads to “registration upon graduation”.

Under the proposed reforms, students will still have to complete 5 years of full-time study, with 2 years of professional practical experience, but workplace experience will be much more closely integrated into the overall course, which will no longer be broken down into three parts. Crucially, “registration upon graduation” will mean that registration finally becomes realistically achievable within 7 years, rather than the actual average of almost 10 years at present. It will also end the painfully drawn out process of having to study for part III while just embarking on the challenges of full-time work and life after university.

“Registration upon graduation” represents a genuine change to the current system, which should offer real relief for some students, but does it go far enough? For students intent on registration it will offer a clearer pathway. But why has the RIBA stuck rigidly to a 7-year model when for many students the sheer amount of time spent at university – with its associated costs – is their main concern? Nothing under the EU directive requires such a lengthy course and, in any case, if Brexit offers anything, surely it’s an opportunity to fundamentally reassess the way in which the UK educates and regulates its professions.

The proposed reform streamlines the registration pathway, but arguably doesn’t radically alter the underlying economics for students, many of whom take multiple years out under the current system mainly to earn money for their studies – and find a breathing space from the intense hot house of the schools. Gloster would like to explore options for a credit-based system, rather than an emphasis on “years” spent at university, but this kind of radical change is not yet seen as deliverable. For some students, the failure to reduce the length of the course by at least a year may seem a missed opportunity.

Another area where some may feel the review has failed to deliver radical change is the creation of a “conversion” route for students and professionals with “non-cognate degrees”. This was one of the original objectives of the review. In the United States it’s standard practice for graduates from any discipline to “convert” to architecture via a three-year Master in Architecture course – something which the RIBA currently deems incompatible with a desire to remain compliant with the EU directive and which is not supported by the Arb. Perhaps a solution could have been to offer a new separate category of UK-only registration – available to those who have no interest in working in the EU.

The proposed reforms do offer other substantive changes. Improving the quality of professional practical experience, and strengthening the role of practices in education is a key objective. With the government putting increasing pressure on employers to provide proper vocational training, David Gloster believes that practices will have an important and growing role to play in education. As part of the proposed changes, a new “compact” is being developed in parallel with the review, which will commit chartered RIBA practices to providing more structured and mutually beneficial training experiences. Gloster would like to see the two “years out” running sequentially, although schools will be given scope to design the exact sequencing of these integrated courses as they see fit. And those elements of education previously artificially separated off into the tail-end part III will now be more fully integrated throughout the new 7-year course.

So will the changes address students’ underlying concerns? They seem well designed to improve the educational experience and strengthen ties between academic and workplace training. But the course will remain dauntingly long and, for many, prohibitively expensive. As they stand, it could be argued that the proposed reforms represent an intelligent refinement of the existing system, rather than the radical overhaul that many students, academics and employers will have been hoping for.

Perhaps this was always inevitable. David Gloster certainly gives the impression of having wanted to go further than has been possible. He says the RIBA is anxious to ensure that there are as many possible models and choices to achieve registration as possible. But, as he notes: “Shifting the inertia around the existing system will take time. You have to recognise the inertia is there.” According to some critics, this goes to the heart of the challenge facing architectural education, which is the need to adapt to almost constant and rapid change. Bob Sheil describes architectural education as being “increasingly constrained in its ability to engage with rapid changes taking place within creative and construction industries, the economy and, most importantly, how careers are built”.

Gloster says it will be eight or nine years before the proposed changes begin to be felt, with the first students achieving “registration upon graduation” around the middle of the next decade. It would be a shame if the RIBA left the next review until then. Perhaps what architectural education requires is for the overall model to be under constant review – constantly adapting and changing to meet the needs of the industry, researchers and students.