Shocking stories of struggle and even homelessness mean schools must treat reform as a matter of urgency, says Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

The RIBA Council’s three student representatives recently wrote an open letter to the heads of all accredited architecture schools urging them to publish costs for school field trips, large-scale models and cumulative printing in their course and module structure, as well as details of alternative assessment provisions or subsidised programmes.

This was their response to real-life struggles they read about while assessing applications for the RIBA hardship fund. Like so many of the issues with architectural education, the high cost of an architecture degree is news to few. However, with higher fees the financial pressures of studying architecture are pushing some students close to breaking point. These three council members have chosen to represent the RIBA’s student members and call for change – and I heartily applaud that.

Assuming a maximum maintenance loan plus fees, a student will graduate after five years of full-time architectural study with a minimum debt of £88,500 (£101,300 in London). (This assumes no loans are required for the year out or part III). This is an incredible burden to take on for a career where your salary is likely to max out well short of six figures.

Nonetheless, even taking on this eye-watering level of debt is unlikely to be enough. Rent, bills and buying groceries are likely to come close to, if not exceed, the maximum maintenance loan of £8,430 per year (£11,002 in London). The significant costs of “optional” (for which read all-but-compulsory) field trips, large-format printing and modelling materials significantly add to the financial pressure.

It should be that tutors look at the quality of work rather than the paper it’s printed on but in my experience, and that of friends at multiple other schools, flashy visuals, heavy paper and large models with unusual or costly materials do tend to wow – and to inflate marks.

I spoke with one London-based tutor who believed this level of debt is “fundamentally problematic” and that while schools who support students with field trip and material costs help those already in the system they do not address the root cause: they are a “plaster over an amputation”.

This tutor has seen first-hand horrific instances of students who have been made homeless halfway through term and have then alternated sofa surfing and sleeping rough while attempting to continue their studies. Less severe perhaps but far more common were students who struggled with design work because universities could not offer them a secure or dedicated studio space to store large work. Often, they lived in small or shared rooms up to two hours’ commute away. It goes almost without saying that shipping models safely over these distances and then having no space in which to build them is actively harmful to students’ chances of doing well enough to secure a good job on graduation.

Challenges such as homelessness, lack of space, expensive materials and transportation costs leave no margin for error or space for experimentation. These problems are not confined to London, but the intensity of the capital does tend to exacerbate the problem.

Of course, it is possible to budget and take on a part-time job (though, from personal experience, this becomes increasingly difficult to balance as the course progresses and workloads increase). But, as this tutor commented, it is unrealistic to expect the majority of 17- and 18-year-olds to organise themselves to be able to cope with tight budgets and a difficult course just weeks after leaving home for the first time.

Architecture is, perhaps rightly, a difficult degree and high in scope and expectations. However, the barriers of entry to the profession have been further escalated by high fees and significant course costs, regressing the profession to one only accessible to the already wealthy. If nothing else this should cause us to question how serious we are about promoting diversity in architecture. It is true that tuition fees are not in the sphere of influence of the RIBA or Arb. But accredited course length, and therefore the number of years a student is required to keep accumulating debt, is directly within their remit.

Furthermore, it is fast becoming a truth universally acknowledged that architects are increasingly marginalised within the construction industry. I cannot help but see a causal link to the indoctrination of the next generation with the belief that this art can only be practised at significant personal and financial cost. It does not exactly inspire self-confidence or instil value in the skills of the profession.

Combine significant financial stress with an already difficult training and the rising cost of living and you are creating a perfect storm for mental health problems and a rising generation who are burning out before they begin. Cheesy as it may sound, the students of today are the future of our profession and I believe the pressure we are placing on them at this developmental stage is setting them up for failure. Educational reforms are too slow in coming and in the waiting it is not just statistics that are suffering: it is real people.