As architecture students head back to university this month, all Australian architecture schools are shifting to MArch as the professional degree. Richard Blythe looks at why and what it might mean for the profession.
At the meeting of the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia in 2005, a significant number of university representatives indicated that under no circumstances would current BArch degrees change to the qualification Masters of Architecture as their graduating degree. This year, three years later, all fifteen accredited Australian architecture programmes have made the switch, and a new course at Monash University has this year accepted its first intake into a programme that will lead to the MArch qualification. While this move can be understood within the general context of the globalization of education and the profession of architecture, it nonetheless represents the most significant change in the structure of Australian architecture programmes since the 1980s amalgamation of tertiary education into the university sector. Given this significance, it is important to reflect on how and why such sweeping change has taken place and on what the implications are for the profession.
One of the primary drivers for the change was the 1999 Bologna Accord, a European intergovernment agreement on higher education, which was motivated by an ambition to reinvigorate the European higher education sector as the global frontrunner and to compete with the established American sector and the rapidly developing Asian sector (focused in China and India and providing a salutary reminder of Australia’s relatively peripheral role). The accord consisted of a ten-year plan to bring structural alignment across the European sector to create consistency of standards, qualifications and length of study times. Not all aspects of the original agreement or subsequent developments to the accord have been adopted universally, but nevertheless the agreement brought sharp focus on the education sector globally. The overarching implications for Australia were increased competition for full-fee-paying international students, the transportability of Australian qualifications and international opportunities for Australian students.
For architecture programmes in Australia, there were significant implications in all three of these areas, which necessitated the change from five-year professional degrees to a Master qualification. One of the rationales in the Bologna argument for such a change had to do with interdisciplinary equivalency. Architecture degree courses are five years in length and conclude with a “thesis-like” project that is self-directed in the sense that students develop their own design project under the guidance of tutors rather than “receiving” a project as part of a developed curriculum. By comparison, students in other disciplines have completed a Masters at this point in their education or have completed a Bachelor degree, an honours degree and one year of a three-year doctoral degree. It therefore made sense to bring some sort of cross-disciplinary parity to architecture by lifting the graduating degree to MArch. For those Australian schools already structured around the three-plus-two model, this was, at least in principle, a simple change.
Irrespective of the approach taken by individual schools in making the change, a fundamental question emerges in this shift from undergraduate to postgraduate education that goes to the core of the profession. To what extent are we a profession practising a set of clearly identifiable and well-understood competencies, and to what extent are we a creative discipline, harbingers of new knowledge in a transformative, global world context? Of course this question is not new to the discipline and aspects of both sides are evident throughout its history, but at this point it is important to rethink the balance. The shift to Masters as a graduating degree presents an opportunity for the profession to reinforce its role as a stakeholder in the change process itself and in the production of new knowledge rather than limiting its role to one of professionally competent application. Indeed, the most valuable competence of the profession is its capacity to step beyond the known to find new solutions that are not predictable through the measure of a pre-described competency. The very notion of competence – adequacy, the bare minimum – does not set the scene for this level of ambition for the profession and therefore is a limited concept for ensuring for Australian society the effectiveness and quality of the profession. The step to Masters carries with it a different kind of ambition, imbued with notions of excellence and specialization, and as a profession we should embrace this to encourage schools of architecture that, rather than doing all things competently (to a bare minimum standard), might instead be encouraged to do some things at the highest levels of achievement. Between them, these schools would be able to offer distinct opportunities for the future of the discipline.
This is not to suggest we turn our backs on basic standards, but rather that we shift our focus to one of achieving excellence. Thirteen of the fifteen accredited schools have gone down a fairly straightforward path involving either minor or no change to the content of existing programmes. Two courses, QUT and the University of Melbourne, have applied for preliminary assessment of new courses that differ significantly from the accredited programmes previously offered at those institutions. In both cases the fundamental change has been to a more general first degree followed by a professional Masters “capping” degree. This is an important shift in Australian architecture education, opening up an alternative model to more traditional and strictly focused courses. Each approach, generalist and focused, has its strengths and each contains potential weaknesses. The strength of the generalist approach is that graduates gain a more thorough general education, and in a humanist discipline such as architecture it is difficult to fault the logic of this. The strength of the discipline-specific approach is that graduates have worked more intensely and at higher levels of engagement over the course of their degree. The overall worth of the Australian system and the quality of architectural education will be determined not by the success (or accreditation) of one system over the other, but rather by the positive resistance, irritation and motivation that results from the active encouragement of effective and divergent approaches that deliver high quality but nonetheless different outcomes.
There is a challenge on the table for Australian architecture schools to demonstrate to the profession and the community what it is they are offering mastery in, since the degrees they confer appear now to be beyond that associated with basic competence. The schools of architecture of Australia should define their position and the veracity of their definition should be taken as a measure of their worth, a measure that is more robust than one of bare minimum standards. What do they offer the future of architecture and of our society? How will they, as members of the academy, describe the ways in which new knowledge is generated by our discipline? Where is it recorded? How is it communicated? Who does it well? What is their role specifically? What is the relationship between the profession and the academy in that process? The processes and systems through which these things happen enjoy a long history, they do not need to be replaced or reinvented, but the process is neither well articulated nor understood and nor is it communicated effectively to those beyond the discipline. This limits the effectiveness of that process and the ability of those outside the discipline to understand its rigours and qualities. The change to Masters degrees provides an opportunity for the academy and the profession to work through these questions for the betterment of the discipline.
Richard Blythe is Head of School and Director of Research, Architecture + Design at RMIT University. He is chair of the RAIA Education Committee.