A change to university funding could provide the chance to implement initiatives that maintain standards while staying internationally competitive, says Paul Finch

Funding of higher education, including architecture courses, is a mess. Predictions of a £120 billion-plus black hole in the accounts of the pretend bank created to lend money to students are a signal that the whole system is phoney. As usual, it will be bailed out by the taxpayer.

Like many of the Blair government’s initiatives, the loan system was based on rhetoric, then translated into ill-considered policy. This is now justified as having brought many people from poorer households into university education for the first time. The real reason for the increase is the growth in places, the creation of non-academic courses given degree status, and the lowering of standards required to get a place (though not, generally, in architecture).

Despite this expansion, there is a shortage of doctors, engineers, maths teachers and so on.

Let us assume that graduates earn on average significantly more over their working lifetime than non-graduates. That being the case, they will pay significantly more tax. It is this tax that should be regarded as funding their university course. Why penalise the young with massive front-end debt, especially at a time when it looks as though today’s students will be poorer than their parents?

Loans are particularly objectionable in respect of architecture and any other long courses. What do people have to borrow to get through seven years – £40k, £50k? To do what, other than pay off the debt from salaries at the wrong end of the scale for qualified professionals? The idea that this represents an increase in equality of opportunity is a sick joke.

Meanwhile, if you are lucky enough to get into certain courses in EU countries, like Denmark, you may be able to sail through college without paying any fees at all. Despite the pumped-up claims about EU common standards, they are about qualification, not process. You can become a qualified EU-approved architect in four years in some countries, seven in others.

Incidentally, the claims that Brexit would wreck our university sector, with students voting with their feet not to come here, turn out to be drivel. Applications from both EU and non-EU citizens for places increased in 2017. It is true that some young non-Brit architects are moving back to the EU and are nervous about life after Brexit, but in the overall context of the profession, this is not a major worry.

More worrying is the condition of the economies to which they may be returning. A partner in a significant London practice told me last week that he had staff moving back to Portugal, where there is little chance of finding equivalent architectural work. This is despite the fact that it has been made clear that there will be no requirement for EU citizens to leave this country following Brexit. Perhaps this has not been made clear enough. As this column has noted before, the last time we expelled any group of people was in the 13th century.

In respect of the government examination of university funding, it may be the opportunity to carry through initiatives being discussed by the RIBA and heads of school about ways of maintaining excellent standards in the UK architectural system, while remaining competitive with schools across the world, not just the EU.

This is a tall order, but then innovation and high standards are perfectly compatible, as the story of the London School of Architecture shows. Will Hunter’s proposition of education, training and a form of pupillage has taken root, showing how beneficial change can be achieved within existing institutional frameworks.

The government funding rethink should be accompanied by further discussion about where UK architectural education goes from here.

Source: Architects Journal