Architecture Students as Customers: How not to measure the value of architectural education

Whilst we are waiting for the outcome of our federal election it is worth noting that The Abbott-Turnbull  government has increased funding to a new project that measures quality in tertiary education. This initiative is called QILT: Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching. QILT is a ranking system that relies on independent data based on the 2015 different Student Experience Surveys. In September the survey will add in graduate employment data as well. On this basis your architecture school is a great architecture school if you graduate (in order to do the survey), love the experience (no matter how little you learn) and earn a buck. Yes, as a customer you will need to earn a buck to pay down your Higher Education student debt. But as we all know nowadays everyone pays to attend. Some more than others.

Architectural education is now well and truly a part of this increasingly global “business” of education. Although, architecture is not a large part of the “business”, or as large in revenue generation as law, commerce or biomedical sciences, it still seems to tick over nicely. For some university executives architecture is a commodified cash cow. You can thrash it like an old Holden via lot’s of short term contracts and  high staff-student ratios in the studios. It doesn’t really matter who you take in as students, or how you treat them, just as long as they pay.

QILT

Data measures such as QILT only seem to reinforce these “customer” orientated tendencies. The architecture student is now a customer; student’s get the branded degree they paid for; and they aren’t challenged too much or they might complain (tell me about it); and they learn a few technical skills (throw in a bit of of CNC, Rhino and Revit) that enables them to get a paying job (maybe).

The first flaw of QILT in relation to architectural education is is that it  aggregates data from across number of different disciplines.  This includes Architecture & Urban Environments, Building & Construction.It slums together Architecture, Urban Design and Regional Planning, Landscape Architecture and Interior and Environmental Design, Building Science and Technology, Building Construction Management, Building Surveying and Building Construction Economics. How any one could lump together architecture construction management and economics with urban planning is astounding. The built environment design disciplines should be in a separate dataset.

QILT uses data that is based on university Student Experience Survey (SES) which, as most committed tertiary teachers will tell you are notoriously flawed for reasons too long to discuss here (this is a good introductory paper on the issues). In architectural education a brief example might suffice: In architecture design students respond to the surveys prior to their final studio presentations. The administrators of the SES view these crits as an examination but do not realise that getting students to respond prior to the crit distorts the figures. Fewer architecture students respond, they are to busy preparing for the crit, and more importantly, the end of project design crit is one of the significant learning points in the semester.

QILT is also based on data gathered from the The Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ). This is completed by graduates of Australian higher education institutions four months after completion of their courses measuring: Overall satisfaction, good teaching, generic skills. QILT also measures data gleaned from the Graduate Destination Survey. Which includes the median salary of graduates. This is one reason why the discipline data should not be mixed up together as every one is on different pay scales. The QILT data jockeys are also developing a “The Employer Satisfaction Survey (ESS)” which  is being developed as part of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching

The QILT website allows you to compare between universities. Using the quick comparison I did it would seem that one architecture school in Australia appears to outshine all of the others in terms of graduate satisfaction, skills learnt and median salaries. There is not a lot I can say about this; except I don’t think much of the QILT methodology or its comparative results.

What makes a great architecture school

Of course, we all want to say that we went to a great architecture school. The one I went to is now argued to be, by some at least, one of the best in the world (it did not rank as well on QILT). The one I teach at is also ranked highly across global research measures. Of course when I went to Architecture school in the pre-digital dark ages there, some of us much longer than others, we thought it was a shambolic and chaotic mess. That was part of its charm and that’s probably what you get when you have architects running the whole show. Of course now that we have left architecture school and look back on it it doesn’t seem so bad. Compared to other schools in Australia at the time, or even elsewhere we had a pretty good deal.  In fact I would argue that because the architects were in positions of leadership in the faculty and the school this contributed to it’s burgeoning global reputation at the time. Sadly, one architecture school I know of is governed almost entirely by administrators.

Measuring architectural culture

QILT doesn’t really measure the value of an architectural culture or how students may be involved in current global debates. It is  a one size fits all approach to running the “business”. As a student I was actively involved and close to the architectural debates, controversies and conversations of the day. I had the opportunity to be taught by the best practitioners and academics of the day. As students we were challenged by our studio tutors and we did not mind this. As students we helped to create the culture that made the school better. Moreover, thanks to Whitlam I didn’t have to pay a cent and in fact I even got paid an allowance to escape my outer suburban bunker and go to architecture school.

Measures like QILT are easy tools for the administrators to bludgeon university academics with. Its a misleading tool to guide the potential customers. Fostering the link between teaching, research and industry in architecture schools is essential for the future of the architectural profession. This is not measured in QILT. Just giving graduates a technical skill set or measuring output by how good the graduate feels during the course or their employment and salary outcomes really misses the mark.

In the future most architectural graduates will have to cope with the firestorms of technological change, climate change, political volatility and perhaps worse. Being narrow technologists who cant think across disciplines, or graduates who have never been challenged by inspired teaching to think doesn’t really cut the mustard with me. Bad shit is coming down the pipeline and our architectural graduates really need to be able to think rather than consume.

 I am almost out of the country yet on annual leave. So watch out for next week’s blog which might even be written in road trip style. 

 

 

 

 

 

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