London School of Architecture 02.04.15

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Will Hunter's new postgraduate course is both a reaction to and an outcome of the progressive marketisation of UK higher education, says Icon's architecture correspondent Douglas Murphy

When it comes to architectural education in the UK, one thing everyone agrees on is that it's not fit for purpose any more. Students go through seven years of training, five of which are spent in school, only to end up earning a paltry salary in relation to comparably trained professionals. Furthermore, all the wide-ranging knowledge in the world hasn't stopped the marginalisation of architects on site by project managers and consultants.

British architectural schools are said to be among the best in the world, but UK graduates are frequently clueless about construction compared with their European counterparts, since the hyper-competitive "consumer choice" unit models, derived from Alvin Boyarsky's AA and Peter Cook's Bartlett, have come to dominate. In the process, a system has been built that rewards students more for designing Kafkaesque trout farms than any serious engagement with the field.

But what is to be done? The RIBA recently conceded it was time for the Part III professional course to be dropped, but should things go further? Should postgraduate studies become optional? Should students stop designing Harry Potter space stations and focus on building science and law? Or should architecture become a non-professional degree entirely?

Stepping into this confusion is the London School of Architecture, a new postgraduate course that hopes to shake up the system. It is the brainchild of Will Hunter, former architecture tutor and Architectural Review deputy editor, who has spent the past three years preparing for the first set of about 25 students, who will enrol this year.

The LSA aims to offer an alternative to the status quo in an increasingly treacherous higher education environment. The main difference is that the first year will be divided between study and work, with students spending two days a week on academic projects and the remaining three at an architecture practice, before undertaking a thesis in their final year. Fees are set at £6,000 – two-thirds of what students pay elsewhere – and the year in work will help mitigate the costs.

This hybrid sounds like a pretty good deal for students, and the people who've signed up to teach them, including Deborah Saunt and Tom Holbrook, shows that the profession is taking it seriously. Hunter has filled the LSA with people from his days at the RCA, with previous professor Nigel Coates and academic Clive Sall heavily involved, which might give a clue to the teaching style to expect – ideas such as "London: the city as a testing ground" or a focus on approaching issues through proposition rather than critique will be familiar to those at the RCA during Coates' tenure.

The underlying process that the LSA is reacting to, but also what makes it possible, is the ongoing marketisation of UK higher education. The massively increased fees, the bloating of departments (often with non-EU students whose financial contributions are even more extreme) and a squeezing of staff mean alternative routes are desperately needed.

That the LSA lists one of its core values as being "entrepreneurial" may set alarm bells ringing, and the combination of free school-esque independence with concerns about financial access for students is an ambiguous one. But, barring a revolution, we're not going back to when architects learned to design social housing at university then immediately went out to built it, so we should welcome this step. There will be much to learn from how it develops.

 

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Douglas Murphy

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ideas such as "London: the city as a testing ground" or a focus on approaching issues through proposition rather than critique will be familiar to those at the RCA during Coates' tenure

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