As other professions’ education systems keep up with modern technology and ever-changing industries, the architecture and construction systems are getting left behind. But there are many ways of updating the industry’s teaching practices

Jack Pringle

Education: it’s time for a big change. Paradoxically, while the UK delivers some of the best architecture and engineering courses in the world, they are not fit for tomorrow’s construction industry. Meanwhile new, disruptive technologies offer huge opportunities for how education and training can be delivered at low cost and high quality.

Sir John Armitt hosted a lunch debate at the Institution of Civil Engineers last week where Ed McCann, director of Expedition, explained how engineers have a problem as their degree courses don’t teach basic construction anymore. So, he and Imperial College put together a few five-minute YouTube videos on basic things, like how to do a slump test. Next, they got their leading soil mechanics expert to create some short videos covering all the basics of that more-specialised science. These videos quickly went viral worldwide with tens of thousands of views. Just think, a teenager could sit in a remote village in India and be taught by the best engineers in the world - at virtually no cost. My mind went immediately to how this could help young architects who generally have no clue about construction as they are not taught it at university. A suite of video “easy-guides” to first-class practice could be funded for around £50k, which could then be downloaded for free.

In an era of increasingly high course fees, and high expenses on the course, architecture can only be afforded by well-off kids from middle-class homes

But it’s not just at the prosaic end of the scale that new technology is revolutionising education. One of my clients runs medical schools that teach everything virtually, including anatomy and dissection. No longer will medical students have their own corpse to cut up; it’s all virtual reality. Harvard offers more than 600 online courses. No application and no vetting of prior qualifications are required, which democratises access to Ivy League-quality education. Sure, there is criticism that the best education needs contact and interaction with tutors. I can see that in architectural education the design stream needs personal interaction, but I would have loved to have been taught history and theory by the world’s best via a well-cut video.

This all comes at a time when the professions’ education looks outdated. We educate in silos while we design in multidisciplinary teams, which increasingly need to be integrated with the construction supply chain.

Architecture has been a popular course and we have some of the best schools in the world. But it badly needs reform. Only one in fourteen first degree entrants go on to qualify as architects and those that do take an average of 9.7 years to do so. In an era of increasingly high course fees, and high expenses on the course, architecture can only be afforded by well-off kids from middle-class homes. Graduates are not equipped to immediately function in an office, they have no business skills and they enter one of the lowest-paid professions. A recent Financial Times article revealed how over 30 years architects’ and engineers’ earnings have plummeted compared with medics, lawyers, accountants and other major professions.

Diversity is the first casualty of this. It’s not only a rich kids’ game, it’s sexist. How can a young woman expect to balance work and family life when she is unlikely to make much headway in her career until she is in her mid-to-late thirties - her ideal time to have children? No wonder so many top female architects are childless. My two eldest daughters are entering the profession. Their school chums have gone into other major professions and already earn proper salaries in their late twenties. My daughters look at me aghast saying, “What have we got into?”

The Royal Institute of British Architects has recognised that architectural education has to change and is drafting radical proposals for consultation. Academics, who have often resisted requests for change, need to be prepared to embrace new ideas. Architectural education needs to fast-track a route to qualification, embrace integration with the construction industry and include business education.

I would favour an intensive full-time three-year degree focusing on design, as this needs to be interactive with tutors, followed by a part-time three-year architectural MBA with summer schools achieving full qualification within six years. Our young professionals could be immersed in work by the time they are 21 with lower-fee debts, be fully qualified by 24, business savvy from the start and well established in their careers by the time they’re 30. This would attract a diverse range of entrants, including more young women, and produce a more relevant profession.

Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will