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Overview – Chill winds in the groves of academe

What does the future hold for architectural education as even the Cooper Union lurches towards spiraling tuition fees?

As a consequence of European austerity measures and reduced US spending on education, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York currently finds itself in the eye of an ideological storm. As an all-scholarship institution,it prides itself on its unique approach to education provision.

The school generates funding from private investment and its ownership of the famous Chrysler Building in Manhattan. Yet even with these sources of revenue and endowments, the Cooper Union’s financial situation has become precarious. In November 2011, Mark Epstein, Chair of the Board of Trustees, announced an annual deficit of $16 million (£10.3 million). The only possible solution would be to transform the school into a fee-based institution.

Students, alumni, faculty members and the wider academic community were left staggered at the proposal, which runs contrary to the philosophy of free education inculcated by the school’s founder Peter Cooper in 1902. Presently, the Cooper Union offers one of the most sought-after architecture programmes both globally and within the United States.

Its rigorously selective admissions procedure encourages high achievers and has nurtured notable architectural figures such as Elizabeth Diller, John Hejduk, Shigeru Ban and Daniel Libeskind. Yet in both the US and the UK, academia is becoming increasingly commercialised, devolving into a product to be marketed and sold in response to corporate pressures.

In the UK, Universities Minister David Willetts has decreed that from the start of the 2012 academic year, the ‘basic threshold’ for tuition fees would rise to £6,000 per year. In ‘exceptional circumstances’, a university could charge up to £9,000 per year. With the onset of these fee increases, a two-tier system is now evolving in which only the privileged few can afford to attend the ‘better’ universities. The tuition fee cap is only applicable to publicly funded institutions, which means that universities can charge any fee they wish if they attract private funding.

One such institution is the New College of the Humanities in London’s Bloomsbury, a well-trodden haunt of academic and student life. Launched by a group of high-level academics, including scientist Richard Dawkins and philosopher AC Grayling, it intends to charge tuition fees of £18,000 per year. This creation of an elitist system radically reconceptualises the British university framework, bringing it more into line with the American Ivy League.

The standard architecture course is currently a five-year degree (and even then does not fullyqualify the student as an architect) and would cost an average of £40,355 to complete. Anticipating an average salary on graduating from the Part I course of £16,692 per annum, realistically, how many students will be able to become practising architects? It seems extremely unlikely that the average architect’s wage will be able to offset the extortionate cost of a university education.

But there are wider concerns about the status and role of architects. As the profession becomes more marginalised and segmented into specialised subsets, its socio-cultural value is diminished. With an increasing emphasis on project budgets and performance, the role of the architect is shifting to that of ‘building coordinator’, a trend now reflected in the educational system.

A new degree at Instituto de Empresa School of Architecture in Madrid is described as a ‘Master in Architectural Management and Design’. This combines entrepreneurial business expertise with a design approach, encouraging ‘vocational designers’ through on-site practice and web-based tuition. If the role of the architect continues to diminish and if student debt continues to rise, the inevitable consequence will be students deserting a profession now relentlessly focused on achieving the cheapest option.

Cooper Union may be a crumbling bastion of scholarship-based education, but the broader problem is the profession’s inability to maintain its own ideology and identity. Clearly, the historic role of architectural scholar and practitioner in contemporary society needs to be evolved and strengthened. Fee-based initiatives and ascetic devaluation may be one thing, but it is the slow death of the architect – in its identifying professional form – that truly threatens academia and practice.

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