The idea is well-meaning but Mark Middleton can foresee some unintended consequences

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

Mark Middleton, Grimshaw

One of the strengths of the architecture profession is the ability to look at itself with a critical eye to identify the issues that need resolving. When we consider that architecture in its best form aims to make a positive social impact, why wouldn’t we want that for ourselves?

This question has led to some trailblazing programmes that champion the role of women in architecture. And now it seems that the RIBA has shifted its focus to social inclusion with the announcement of its apprenticeships scheme. The aim of this latest initiative seems to be to attract young people who wouldn’t be interested in architecture, or perhaps are unable to afford the hefty price tag that accompanies higher education. The subtext here is an uncomfortable admission by the RIBA that architectural education is full of middle-class students and doesn’t represent the full social spectrum.

On the face of it the apprenticeships sound great, and as someone who comes from a working class background I want to support it. However I am not totally convinced by the proposal. Without a doubt, the profession should be open and welcoming to all, but I am not sure if the RIBA has thought through its concept properly because the apprenticeship scheme seems to have a number of unintended consequences.

I don’t know why there is fanfare for a government-backed solution to a problem of their own making. Social inclusion wasn’t a problem when university tuition was paid for and maintenance grants were given by the government. As someone who received both, I can say that my first year at university was very mixed, with classmates of diverse gender, social and ethnic backgrounds. The economic ghettoisation of architecture only became a problem when financial support ended and it became too expensive for working class families to even contemplate supporting their children in higher education.

This could lead to a crisis not only in architectural education but also in architectural firms who would be expected to shoulder yet another educational burden

I don’t think the RIBA is actually trying to make architecture socially inclusive, instead it’s trying to make it affordable, but it could have done many different things to facilitate this other than create apprenticeships. As an example they could have shortened the time it takes to become an architect, making it cheaper in the process. If you have completed a degree and then a diploma, the fourth year is a complete waste of time, so without even breaking a sweat the RIBA could make it six years long. Alternatively, they could offer and manage a process whereby a larger number of bursaries are drawn from the industry to support those who require them to study. Even more simply, they could have lobbied the government to significantly reduce tuition fees. Any of these options would make architecture more affordable and therefore inclusive.

The RIBA has published plans on the two different apprenticeships: one covers becoming an architectural assistant with a part I exemption, and the other covers becoming an architect and would cover parts II & III of the RIBA exams. Both of these courses are advertised as lasting four years each and would include only one day per week in training at an accredited university, the rest facilitated by the supporting practices. This seems to mean that in addition to the training each practice gives them, apprentices will only spend 20% of their time in supervised study compared to a full-time student. According to this logic an architectural apprentice can learn what they need to in one-fifth of the time of a university student. Therefore if apprentices can learn in 20% of the time with a bit of on-the-job training, why doesn’t the RIBA cut the length of the existing course and therefore its cost, making it quicker to qualify and more affordable? I think this shows that the existing full-time course is far too long, or the RIBA has over-promised and the apprenticeships will actually be longer than initially suggested when they are launched.

The scheme also leads to wider issues in the profession. Why would any prospective architectural student decide to take on the significant debt of tuition fees and living expenses at university when they can do an apprenticeship? They could become a qualified architect only a year later when compared to a university student and be paid while they are doing it, emerging virtually debt-free. I think most of the prospective students would vote with their feet and apprenticeships would become the preferred route into the profession. This could lead to a crisis not only in architectural education but also in architectural firms who would be expected to shoulder yet another educational burden and the cost that entails.

I also have concerns that the remaining architecture schools will have boutique full-time courses with design methodologies only available for those who could pay. The apprenticeships would therefore create a two-tier system, with the haves and have nots, which will in turn create less social inclusion; worse than what we have today. With so much unknown it is hard to gauge whether to be completely behind this initiative or not, but I am very sceptical. It is disappointing that instead of sorting out the existing route into architecture the RIBA seems to be creating a whole new set of challenges with a new system.

If they want to focus on something, then perhaps they should look at why architecture’s educational model is so exclusive in the first place. I don’t believe it’s just the cost. There are bigger questions that need to be asked about why architecture has such a distinct lack of diversity, and perhaps we all need to take responsibility for this, turning that critical eye inwards once again to ask some difficult questions.