Higher education is going to become increasingly inaccessible, so why don’t we create ways of training while working

Students protesting? Finally some engagement. Unlike the French, who rally at the drop of a chapeau, it takes quite something to get our lot going. But the proposed cuts are indeed quite something, and something the government will come to regret. Not since the sixties, when the grant system was introduced, has the government effectively withdrawn state support of higher education. Grants were introduced to give access to a greater number and cross-section of young people, but only in the past 20 years have we been able to compete with our European neighbours who had two to three times more students in higher education. It’s hardly as though we don’t have to compete now, which makes this government’s strategy doubly difficult to comprehend.

Students can and should go on protesting peacefully, but it is likely we will all have to confront a new, harsher reality. The challenge of debt, particularly in a course as long as architecture, is daunting, and in architecture there is no fast track to high or secure income once you have graduated.

Students should go on protesting peacefully, but we have to confront a new, harsher reality. the challenge of debt, particularly for courses as long as architecture, is daunting

I have long held the view that there are alternative routes to higher education, formed from my own experience of having left school at 16 and having my own office. I am not going to suggest university education isn’t hugely valuable - intellectually and socially it’s probably the only moment in your life you have to explore ideas and find your own creativity with the kind of intensity only time allows. But I do think there are other ways, and for some that might be the only option.

Some of the best talent coming through my office has been from unconventional routes. We had two people who had studied architecture for only one year and then taken time out. Their contribution was out of all proportion to their lack of experience, and I would happily have continued to employ them - in effect, as architects. During their time with us they developed their design skills and learned to think in a different way. They were exposed to some of the best engineers in the world, they participated in design critiques, they were supported by multiple tutors, they took part in life-drawing classes, they were taught how to use new software, they attended talks given by consultants, manufacturers and artists, they worked on live projects and competitions and they were paid - because that is what happens in offices.

However, a combination of parental pressure and a belief that a degree is what employers demand convinced them reluctantly to return to full-time education.

It matters little to me what qualifications people have. What does matter is talent, drive, communication skills and intellectual ability. Many in my office do not have Part III, but they can administer projects as well as those who do. Some of our brightest Part I students are equal to Part IIs. We have an intern joining us straight from secondary school, who has already taught himself how to use all the software we rely on, and whose knowledge of architecture is impressive for one so young. We have also had Part Is who have had to unlearn the blind-alley ways they picked up at college - few UK colleges teach you to build.

So I think there is room for an informal teaching model within offices, not unlike an apprenticeship. I grant you this would not work in all offices and would probably only suit talented, confident and driven individuals. It would demand equal commitment from the employer and student.

I am against the notion of part-time working and studying, because I think both suffer and it is not suited to the pace of an architectural office. What I am suggesting is a programme designed to get the student to the level of competence of Part II, not through teaching but through practice. No exam at the end, because that would be counter to the initiative, but an acknowledgement through director recognition and salary level, that they have the skills and judgement necessary to become an architect. Of course, having no formal qualification requires confidence in your own worth and ability and it would play havoc with the whole ARB registration thing, but it could be an alternative pathway to success. It would be the inverse of higher education - you would be paid to learn. And if the right person picked the right office, the rewards would be rich. So if anyone out there fancies giving this idea a go, I’m up for it.

Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects

Original print headline - University of life