George Ferguson is right about tackling architecture at its training roots. Currently, UK students undergo a course that is so unrealistic, many practices won't hire them
"Generally speaking, students from UK schools are unfit for work in an office," says Jonathan Manser, director of the Manser practice. "They cannot draw by hand, have no knowledge of materials or construction and no understanding of the role of the architect within the construction industry."

Manser prefers students from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These designers, he says, have a better basic training, can draw with confidence, understand shape, space and volume and are consequently much more confident about, and therefore better at, designing buildings.

John Lyall, chair of the RIBA taskforce that formulates the guidelines for architectural teaching, defends the architecture schools.

He denies that students do not learn enough about practical work. This, he says, is "a particularly knee-jerk reaction" from architects. "The schools come under a lot of very unfair criticism from people who never go into them and don't understand what they do."

At the same time, Lyall concedes that a gap is opening between the world that students are trained for and the industry that they have to work in. "Construction has become much more complex," he says. "Architects are definitely under more pressure."

There's a divide between schools and practitioners, agrees Robin Vaughan, registrar of the Architects Registration Board. "There's a different view among those who carry out the education to those practising architecture," he says. "But the profession seems to me to be viable, good, practical and successful. It couldn't be all those things if students had their heads in the clouds. There's always going to be a learning process when students enter jobs."

Alistair Barr, a principal at Barr Gazetas and a part-time tutor at the University of Greenwich, says the schools do their best. "I think the continual carping by the profession about students not being trained to be useful when they join an office is a massive red herring," he says. "Intelligent, enthusiastic students can become useful within days of joining an office, if properly directed. Of course, they need advice and supervision, but there are plenty of architects and technicians who need that after many years in an office."

Learning how to learn is the most important skill, he says; this produces flexible architects who can pick up tasks and adapt to changed environments.

"A student should be enquiring, rigorous and proactive in all topics. This means they are able to research a subject and come to a conclusion. The student who learns this at university can contribute to office work the day they join."

However, Barr's colleague, associate director Suzanne Brewer, has a different view. "I completely disagree with Alistair, who is more prepared to teach new staff than I believe he should need to be," she says. "There is too big a difference between university and real life. When I left after my degree I was, like my friends, completely unemployable. For this reason most Part 1 students end up working on back extensions and vernacular schemes and get disillusioned. A third of my friends didn't go back after the first year out, particularly the girls. It's taken me five years since leaving to have the confidence to build my own house. I think I should have been able to do that the day I left."

More practical experience is vital, she believes, and that's the responsibility of the schools: "Universities should have stronger relationships with practices with regard to securing placements and site visits; going on-site makes the theory real and was a turning point for me."

Brewer warns that the field of education is becoming a marketplace, and students are learning to scrutinise value for money – schools should be worried.

"Now that universities are fee-paying, they should see the student as customers; listen to their needs and justify their spending," she adds. "If universities were businesses, most would have gone bankrupt by now."

Listening to students' needs should keep the schools in business for a while, at least; and universities have the advantage that architecture still attracts an undiminished flow of high-quality applicants. But how long will this continue if those applicants cannot find work after graduation?

Where next? Architecture 2023

What will practice be like for architects and their fellow building professionals in 20 years’ time? A new world in which completed buildings just emerge from a few taps on a computer tablet? Certainly CAD will be far more sophisticated than it is today. But a more likely scenario is that designers will continue their perpetual struggle to reconcile the practicalities of producing workable, risk-free buildings with creative cultural expression. That, at least, is the view that emerges from a new study entitled The Professionals’ Choice: The Future of the Built Environment Professions, published on 14 July by the Professional Futures group, sponsored jointly by the RIBA and CABE.

The study poses five scenarios, each conceived by a different author. The twin issues of improving risk management and enriching cultural expression wind their way through all five, raising profound questions at every turn.

  • The economic scenario: Andrew Curry and Larissa Howard of the Henley Centre foresee investors and the building industry moving closer together. Such intimacy could bring benefits as clients recognise that good, sustainability design protects their investment.

  • The managerial scenario: Simon Foxell, chair of the RIBA’s small practices group, suggests that negotiated long-term build and service contracts will make the building industry a safer investment. As a result, the professions will gain in security and lose in autonomy.

  • The regulatory scenario: Andy Jobling of Levitt Bernstein, imagines a similarly managerial scenario in which insurance companies attempt to reduce risk by stricter auditing of buildings, and in return assume full responsibility for them.

  • The technology scenario: Will Hughes of Reading University, takes the ascendancy of managerialism to a more chilling conclusion. He argues that, being intrinsically risky, creative design will be squashed between commercial pressures and standardisation.

  • The social scenario: Ziona Strelitz of building use consultancy ZZA takes a contrasting line that the architect’s creative role will be boosted as society increasingly demands that the built environment should express cultural identity.

The report concludes that the threats of managerialism, such as standardisation of work, difficulty of recruitment, the pressure to return quick profits and soulless tick boxes, are all likely to increase. To avoid succumbing to such threats, the report’s authors urge the building professions to get the public on their side.

Architects in crisis