All happy architecture schools are alike; each unhappy architecture school is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, ‘Anna Karenina’ (with apologies).

If you’re thinking of investing in a start-up in 2020, then airlines, cruise ships, music festivals and architecture schools would be amongst the least likely candidates. Riddled with historic and contemporary issues, architecture schools in Australia are under deep threat; this week we look at challenges to their structure, next week at lacunae in the curriculum.

Architecture was already an anomalous orphan in the universities that housed them, small and different, they often had less than 2 percent of the student body, but they had appeal being funky and interesting to Vice Chancellors (VC), adding to the diversity of life and thought.

Their lustre has faded along with their hosts, suffering the hostility of an LNP federal government that hates universities. And the arts. So, an art-based education is doubly damned. Teaching costs are higher than in many other courses, and 50 percent of the income, for both teaching and research, that once came from overseas students, has been COVID-19 closed.

Architecture is seen as peripheral in these market-based times, students are sceptical about their job prospects and the quality of their education. More vocation than profession. Not a great recipe for success.

Times have certainly changed. Practitioners and professors nearing retirement today started their education 50 years ago in one of 14 schools of architecture. They enrolled as one of less than a thousand students nationally, and graduated as one of less than half that number from a single five-year architecture course.

The school was often purpose designed, often by a leading architect, with dedicated studio spaces, workshops, and lecture theatres, even if it was a campus outlier. Nearly all the teaching staff were men, as were more than two-thirds of the students. Full time attendance meant just that, to classes that were given by leading architects who were referred to as part time staff. Fees were about to become non-existent under Gough Whitlam’s innovations, and part time work was plentiful, easy to get and well rewarded. VC’s loved those schools.

Compare that to today's entrant who has 23 schools of architecture to choose from, enrolling as one of more than 2500 students, and graduating as one of 1,300. 50 percent of the students are women,  as are the staff, and more than half of the Deans. A third to half of the cohort are international students paying a hefty fee and expecting service accordingly.

There are now two degrees, the second of which is a ‘Masters’. Staff-student ratios have declined, and three-quarters of staff are now ‘sessional’. The large numbers require lecture theatres and spaces at the mercy of the wider university rather than a specially designed architecture school that one would expect. VC’s, now paid excessively to adopt business principles, want to be rid of them, or bury them in a mega-faculty.

And those unregulated changes, and consequent stress, have accelerated in the last five years. Student numbers have increased by 35 percent in that period with only a 14 percent increase in staff. Less money is coming from the Government, so more reliance is placed on international students, with catastrophic issues when the COVID strikes. The attrition of women from the profession starts in Masters courses where the proportion of men over women subtlety increases at graduation.

The population of Australia doubled in the last 50 years and the number of graduates tripled, partly accounted for by international students, many of whom stay in Australia to practice. At what point did we decide that Australia, notably design and architecture averse, needed so many architects? What formal survey was done to establish that increase in demand? Is this a ‘Grand Design’ conundrum or consequence.

All this distressing tragicomedy can be viewed through the fate of the design studio, the traditional heart of architecture school. The project-centred approach is a very robust model for teaching: it calls for logic, ingenuity, creativity, teamwork, innovation and research. Basing the learning around a carefully orchestrated project has the added advantage that solutions are likely to be unique to the student, and therefore easily examinable without the need to recourse for programs like ‘Turnitin’ to check for plagiarism.

The strong pedagogical idea has been transferred to other courses, such as the Newcastle Medical School, that uses ‘problem-solving’ at the core of their teaching program. Ironically, the best teaching tool ever been exported from architecture school has come at a time when it is under most threat.

The downside to project-based teaching is that it needs to be highly resourced: expert staffing with ample time, in small groups in appropriate spaces. Each of those four characteristics takes money. But architecture schools are heading in the other direction: increased student numbers not matched by an increase in academic staff, time frames compressed both in hours per week and weeks per year, and the resources allocated diminishing.

Formerly ‘crits’ took place in fixed spaces, with ‘pinups’ left for younger students to see what their elders were doing. Now a pinup, projection or performance, with visiting critics, takes place in an anodyne space that is cleared out once the morning or afternoon theatre ends, and all evidence disappears. If you are over 35 contemporary architecture school is nothing like your experience, if you're over 55, it’s as foreign as Mars.

Grants to faculties have traditionally been based on research, often difficult to establish in architecture without an ongoing tradition of in-house study. For instance, the study cited below notes that, “there is no reliable data about the number of practices in Australia, their size, practice model, or types of work undertaken. There's no detail on the numbers of students working in architectural practice and only limited information on the diversity of students and the architectural workforce”.

We desperately need high quality architectural research, to catch up with other professions such as medicine, science and engineering, but the times are contrary: the LNP's antipathy to research is evidenced in the underfunding of universities, the CSIRO, and the ABC. Just when we see that research should be urgently undertaken, COVID sees increasing pressures on permanent full-time architectural staff to concentrate on teaching in order to save money.

This recalls a golden time for architectural teaching in Colleges of Advanced Education (CAE’s), a Whitlam era creation to provide teaching-only schools to fit between Universities and TAFE’s. Two examples: under Barry McNeil, an iconoclast teacher, the TCAE explored self-assessment to great success; under Roger Johnson, a gifted polymath, the Canberra CAE developed a common foundation course for architecture, landscape and industrial design students.

With staff devoting more time to teaching, at least for a year or two during COVIP, their research could be forced to circle back to focus on teaching: how can we use the ideas from past innovations to continue the studio model with less and less resources. Recent experience shows that digital tutorials have a long way to go to match the group face-to-face involvement. Something creative is needed, and needed now.

Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low.” yet one more thing that Henry Kissinger got wrong.

Many of the issues for current schools discussed in this article are explored in ‘Architectural Education and the Profession in Australia and New Zealand’ by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA), released in December 2019. Brilliant. If only there was more of this standard of research and discussion on the relation of academia and the profession, or architectural research generally.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be addressed to [email protected].