Training to become an architect is a long process, involving five years of study interspersed with two years of practical experience in architects offices, and ending in a final exam, also taken in practice. As a result students are dependant not only on a university education but also on their ability to find placements in the businesses of their elders.
The last few years have been particularly difficult for graduates (known as Part Is) and postgraduates (Part IIs) struggling to find somewhere to get enough reasonable experience and support to take their finals. As a result many will put behind them years of design teaching and debt to leave the professional conveyor belt. I know this because in the last recession, my path to RIBA Part III came to an abrupt end for the same reason.
Now something is going to be done to help at least some of these students stay in architecture. At least that is the plan. But will it work?
The Minimum Wage Ruling
Last week the the RIBA announced that from 1 July, Chartered Practices should pay PEDR students (that is, Part I and II graduates and postgraduates working towards their finals) the National Minimum Wage as a minimum.
The decision comes from a recommendation by the RIBA’s Pay and Conditions Working Group, set up last autumn to look into “significant concerns over pay and conditions for architecture students completing fee-earning work in practices”.
In her statement published last week, Ruth Reed, President of the RIBA, says that the National Minimum Wage will help students, who will soon be facing higher fees at college as well, complete their education, thereby helping the profession as a whole.
The decision on the minimum wage is seen as the first step, and the RIBA intends to work with students and practices to set appropriate rates of pay across the UK in the coming year.
What is the National Minimum Wage?
You can find out about the detail here, but the minimum wage is £4.92 an hour for 18-20 year olds and £5.93 and hour for 21 year olds and older. Most Part I graduates are 21 or older, so lets look at that figure. It equates to a salary of approximately 11,500 a year. How does that compare with what I earned when I was a Part I graduate?
What did you earn in your years out?
I completed my first architecture degree in Liverpool in the Summer of 1989, and was offered one job at £7.5k and one at £6.5k. I took the lower salary because it was a smaller practice where I thought (correctly) that I would get a good grounding in the nuts and bolts of architectural practice.
Three years later I completed my second degree, it was 1992 and there were no jobs to be had in Liverpool for a Part II graduate. Practices in London were offering placements, but for ‘expenses only’ and I couldn’t afford to take one. So I took the opportunity to do research and teaching in the University instead.
According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, Six and a half thousand pounds in 1989 would be equivalent to £12,600 today. So around £1000 more than the National Minimum wage. It wasn’t hard for me to live on in 1989, but I was living in Liverpool (which was, at the time, quite a cheap place to live).
I also had the benefit of a full grant to complete my education. This paid for all my university fees, plus a maintenance grant of around £3800 a year to live on. By the end of two degrees I had an overdraft of about £1800, and no Student Loan to pay back.
What does this mean for the profession?
In a few years time an architecture student is going to be looking at a debt of £30-£45,000 just in university fees. Add to that the cost of living as a student (which if it were the same prices as my education would be around £40,000 for the five years) and just the years of study are going to be out of reach for many students who studied when I did. A student loan will not cover all this cost, and many architecture students will have to work during their degrees to make ends meet.
In the long term, I feel that the architectural profession, which before the post-war expansion of the redbrick universities was a wholly elitist one, will return to being the province of the elite, in the same way that the legal profession is. Young working and middle class (or middle income) people who aspire to this profession can forget it. I was one of the lucky few.
The minimum wage sticking plaster is to be welcomed, but it is much too little, too late for the future of our profession.
What you can do
I’m all in favour of the minimum wage being paid to graduates. In fact, I’m in favour of graduates being paid a fair wage for a fair days work, because a good practice can turn a year out student into a profitable fee earner in a few weeks. If you aren’t doing this in your practice then chances are you’re showing yourself up as being unable to run your business properly.
Can you help the debate about the wages of architects and part qualified architects? If you are one, please take a few minutes to complete the archaos survey. Archaos is the UK architects student society, and they are gathering evidence of what people are actually earning at the moment to help inform the debate.
Complete the survey here.
While you’re at it, why not work out how your year out salary compares to the minimum wage?