Learning for Making

With the UK on the brink of a skills crisis in design and construction, architect and academic Zoë Berman sets out the radical thinking needed to transform education for these critical creative industries.

The UK is on the brink of a skills crisis in design and construction.

The shortage of well-trained people able to carry out trades-based work on site is well documented. In the Federation of Master Builders’ most recent quarterly report, chief executive Brian Berry observed, “Skills shortages are skyrocketing, and it begs the question: who will build the new homes and infrastructure projects the Government is crying out for?”

Last year, the Design Council reported design skills contribute in excess of £209bn to the UK economy every year. A shambolic exit from the EU threatens the industry further. In their Global Talent Report, the Creative Industries Federation warned the UK could suffer a “disastrous skills shortage,” as 75 per cent of UK creative businesses employ EU workers.

To ensure we are training people to be creative and analytical, brave and entrepreneurial, we need education to be useful and relevant. For too long there has been a schism between those who design and those who make. Ideas for products, systems, buildings and infrastructure, and the fabrication and realisation of those things, are two sides of the same coin. But too few vocational and higher-education courses connect designing and making, entrenching this divide early in a designer’s or maker’s career.

British universities are hefty institutions with obligations to match, as evidenced by the current pensions disputes. They have become vast businesses that are overly bureaucratic and slow to manoeuvre away from a fixed course with little space to offer agile learning environments. Yet in creative, design and technical training, we need to equip students with an education that enables them to grapple with the challenges facing society. To do that, education – and routes into education – need to be adaptive and varied.

Large organisations aren’t disrupters; they’ve too much to lose. As Mark Shayler, business strategist, puts it in his book Do/Disrupt, “The middle of the road is no place to be from a road safety, music, creative or fashion point of view. Change happens at the edges.”

In direct response to this, a handful of groups are establishing new pathways for education. The London School of Architecture was founded in 2012 by Will Hunter, former executive editor of The Architectural Review, after he formed the think tank Alternative Routes for Architecture. Structured as a part-time course for Diploma students, it seeks to balance tuition fees against placement salaries. The course works hand-in-hand with highly regarded London-based practices and practitioners, and validation comes via academic partnership with London Metropolitan University.

Oxford Brookes School of Architecture runs the practice-based RIBA Studio course, for students working full-time in architectural practice in the EEA. Students engage their own design tutors, who must be experienced in architectural education. I tutor on this course and have been struck by its scope for direct and flexible working relationship with students. Freed from an excess of administrative hurdles, I’m able to offer one-on-one teaching and connect students with a network of fellow industry-based experts.

Both of these courses are doing things differently within existing institutional frameworks. Robert Mull, Head of School and Professor of Architecture and Design at Brighton University and visiting professor at Umeå University, is seeking to establish an outward-looking model through an international ‘roving’ collective, not tied to a single institute. Mull first established the Global Free Unit at The Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, to enable students to realise self-defined projects. I graduated from this programme and know the freedom afforded by this course of self-directed study is both terrifying and extraordinary. Students evolve projects with an emphasis on issues of social justice, scarcity of resources, migration and identity. The ‘free’ structure is now expanding, with an international network of academic partners and live project ‘classrooms’.

There’s still a long way to go to better connect designing as a cerebral activity with the tangible realisation of ‘stuff’ and all the messiness and complexity involved in making. An increasing number of schools of architecture organise live projects, where students engage with the challenges of designing and making. The Architectural Association runs a programme of workshops at Hooke Park, their 150-hectare working woodland in Dorset, exploring “new rural architecture and an ethic of material self-sufficiency”. The education is brilliant, but with courses at the AA costing between £25,575 – £42,625, it is far from accessible.

With the increasingly marketised system of higher education and rising costs of education and living, young people are approaching study differently. As Arts Emergency, a registered charity that works with 16-19 year olds from diverse backgrounds, points out, “Debt changes the way people view degrees, as a financial trade off based on perceived employability.” The organisation is founded around a mentoring system to help young people, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds, consider arts education and careers.

Powered by an “alternative old boy network” – hundreds of volunteers working in TV, film, music, art, academia, law, architecture, activism, comedy, journalism, publishing, design and theatre – the scheme has been successfully running since 2011 to “counter the myth that university, and in particular arts degrees, are the domain of the privileged” and to help young people understand the realities of arts courses from an early stage.

The design and creative industries are nurturing some exciting shoots for alternative education structures. But there’s scope for much more. British universities are lauded for their freedom and independence of thought and for training minds to think analytically, but bureaucracy has led to inflexibility, narrowing their ability to explore and test new ideas. Radical alternative ways of teaching will bridge the gaps between designing and making, industry and practice. To prepare our young designers to address the challenges of the future and be ready to respond to change, we need different education models.