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An ethical review of architectural education in the UK: the experience of an overseas M.Arch student

By Maria Fernanda Barranco Skewes. 

M.Arch in Sustainable Urban Design

 

I had a fascinating opportunity to experience higher education in the UK as an overseas student but there are some endemic pitfalls in the system that need an urgent review. Here are my views as a former MArch student.

I came from the city of México, Central America where I did my bachelor degree in Architecture. On my third year, I started my employment career as a project assistant in Construction Management. Then I went onto collaborating in several Architectural workshops focused on design, urban developments and International contests. It wasn’t until I finished my bachelor degree that I began to realise what career path interested me the most: Urban Design and Social Studies.

In an effort to gain more experience in the subject, I joined companies that were more concerned with the urban realm and achieving architecture in context, and I had the opportunity to travel to different parts of the country which opened up a range of different perspectives. During those years, I learnt that the built end product is not actually the most precious part of the architectural process, something that had never been discussed during my education. When you are studying, nobody tells you that the most important factor to consider is actually how to engage with real people, in real life projects.

During those years, time in practice was not a compulsory part of the curriculum in Mexico. Most students preferred to complete the bachelor degree before seeking employment, it is this lack of experience that made it harder for students to choose and develop a career path. I was surprised to hear that although the UK curriculum includes a year out, British students have similar issues than those I had overseas. The problem is that there is an increasingly diverse world of possibilities within the field and many establishments do not offer students a first-hand experience in those emerging trends. Instead they focus on classical architectural design processes. Students are therefore not aware of the many options available. Urban Design, for example, is still a neglected but growing field.

I felt that perhaps one of the best ways to gain skills and to learn a different way to achieve effective solutions was to study abroad. Then, I decided to apply for a Master in Architecture in the UK. My first impression was the exceptional organisation of the educational system in the UK. The amazing preparation and knowledge that the academics shared in their lectures and the outstanding level that the undergraduate students of Architecture seemed to have. However, at the end of the first semester and having discussed this issue with UK students, my conclusion was consistent with my experience in Mexico: there is still no ‘reality check’. Something I struggled to believe given that I enrolled in a master level course in world leading country.

The second semester was slightly different. The project to develop in the studio appeared to be a real proposal located on a real site. Not only academics reviewed the schemes but also chief executives from different companies, senior government staff and other practitioners in the field.  This input of feedback and lectures related to relevant topics persisted throughout the term. The course was finally providing a broader perspective of the vision needed to achieve meaningful places. It was this ‘reality check’ that motivated me to achieve my very best. It was this final project that brought the opportunity to win several awards, along with the possibility of a placement with a leading developing companies. The MArch course in the UK was overall better than anticipated, but the highlight was the last term, an approach that could - and should - have been consistent through all my student years.

According to the article Survey: 25% of UK architecture students treated for mental health problems by The Guardian[i]more than a quarter of architecture students in the UK are receiving or have received medical help for mental health problems related to their course”. In spite of having studied in another country, I am quite familiar with this situation, which seems to be consistent in Architectural studies around the globe. The workload is usually very demanding but it doesn’t reflect the real challenges that students will face in practice.

But the issue continues after graduation. It is during employment that students realise how competitive it is to enter the professional world and to gain real life experience. It then becomes frustrating and stressful when graduates cannot easily grasp how important it is to be well prepared to provide services for real clients, with real budgets and a range of legal and regulatory constraints. Or even worse, when they realise they have gone into a practice path that they do not particularly enjoy as it might lack creativity and innovation.

In a competitive world like this, it is vital not only to be well prepared intellectually but also to be aware of what are the challenges cities are facing. Academic studies must offer skills and tools for graduates to meet the real needs of people and clients. The breech between the world of academia and practice is far too large. This results in a disconection, a student life full of uncertainties that ultimatelly leeds to the emotional instability of students. This is a serious issue that could be tackled through the provision of a different and more realistic perspective in the educational system. Higher education must open the first door to the real world of practice from the outset, and curricula must be reformulated to reflect the complexities of the real world.

 

[i] Hill, A. (2016). Survey: 25% of UK architecture students treated for mental health problems, The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jul/28/uk-architecture-students-mental-health-problem-architects-journal-survey