Opinion: shocking new statistics about the mental health of architecture students in the UK should be a wake-up call for both architects and educators, says Robert Mull.
Last week, a survey by UK magazine The Architects' Journal showed that 26 per cent of architecture students had received medical help for mental health problems resulting from their course, while a further 26 per cent feared they would need to seek help in the future.
This is a shocking statistic. On the surface the causes are clear: high fees, long courses, debt, the fear of debt, the need to work whilst studying, poor job prospects and educational practice that promotes long hours, stressful competition and a worrying degree of discrimination.
The new architecture zine Post Crit, published by students from Newcastle University, sums this up well.
"There is a dangerous trend within architecture of taking pride in overworking oneself," it says. "These tendencies go far beyond a jovial gloating about a strong work ethic, they outline a worrying ability within architecture to take pride in stress and isolation... this leads to anxiety, guilt and the inability to detach oneself from work... we are stuck in architecturally unstimulating spaces resolving problems we cannot find time to experience... yet we somehow enjoy basking in this disengagement as a form of pedestal."
However you explain it, the fact that students are made unwell by the compromises, inequalities and pressures that they are too often expected to endure is unacceptable and a failure of our duty as educators, practitioners and citizens that needs to be addressed.
How do we start? First, there needs to be a recognition that those students who are made unwell are not failures themselves, or weaklings, but conscientious individuals whose distress points to the need for change. And second, we need to realise that the practical pressures students face are evidence of deep-seated cultural factors that need to be challenged.
Look closely at architectural education for a while and you find that the power structures of a society that has failed so many – including students – are woven into it, rather than resisted by it.
Look at the words. The unit "master", the crit, the jury, the marketplace – all ways of dignifying values that are based on competition, power and inequality. On a day-to-day basis, this means a culture where students, their teachers, and schools compete for advantage resulting in long hours, mistrust, insecurity and over production. Add to this fees, debt, fear of debt, long courses and the need to work in addition to studying and you have a toxic mix.
As in society more generally, if you lack social capital, are less confident, have caring responsibilities, or need to work more than one job, then you are at an instant disadvantage and more at risk.
If you are in this situation, you have stark choices – don't enter higher education, accept your second-class status, drop out, or more often blame yourself. None are fair. The result has been a gradual exclusion of those students whose diverse life experiences make them best suited to address pressing social issues.
Post Crit captures this as well: "as graduates accumulate over £30,000 worth of debt from a bachelor's degree alone, there is a real danger for architecture degrees to become privileged courses for those who can afford it... How can architecture provide its graduates with an understanding of all society if it is pushing away those who cannot afford its extortionate extras."
Who is responsible for all this? We all are. Education reflects the values of practice, which in turn reflect the values of society. So it is no surprise that successive governments have felt able to continue this exploitation with fee hikes and cuts to student support.
Looking at architecture culture from their perspective, there seems little risk of resistance as architectural education, like practice, immediately becomes distracted by internal competition and individual advantage. Incapable of collective action, we are the softest of targets and others – from aggressive clients to government – know this.
So it is time for change. There are practical things that need to happen and much is already being done: shorter courses, earn and learn, study abroad, apprenticeships. The list is familiar.
But post-Brexit it could all get harder. Brexit may well mean less or no access to cheap European study. A potential recession would mean fewer placements and apprenticeships, and Theresa May's immigration policy means a further squeeze on the questionable cross-subsidy education receives from overseas students.
But none of this really changes things unless it comes with a change in values. Changes in structure alone will simply allow the underlying inequalities, exploitation and pressures to continue for longer and more students will suffer.
So where do we look if we are searching for new models based on mutual respect, collective action and compassion, which would result in less pressure on students? There's a lot of good work going on in education but for me, one place to start is where the value systems are almost the opposite of those I have described above. The volunteering sector.
Recently I have been working with volunteers on projects relating to the refugee crises in Izmir, Lesvos, Calais, Calabria and London. The contrast with formal education is stark.
Volunteers do what they do because it connects with their own values rather than with the codified values of an educational institution, a profession or a tutor.
Individual authorship is unimportant and success is judged not by the internal logic of an abstract project, an institution or professional structures, but by its impact on others and on wider society.
Volunteers are learning on the job, developing skills that are applied and tested instantly, and refined through action. Conventional ideas of who is strong and who is weak are constantly renegotiated and the difference between people, their gender, ethnicity, life history and diverse talents become a resource rather than an impediment. There is no norm, no "oven-ready" model, merely useful difference.
In most cases, volunteers are embedded in projects that provide them with financial support and supportive networks.
And of course, there is the satisfaction of being useful not just at some point in the future, but now.
I have been constantly asked by volunteers why higher education isn't more like this, and why they can't they receive credit for this. Many are rightly concerned about entering or returning to formal education, paying £9,000 a year, and relinquishing their independence and wider agency.
What can be learned from this? Together with a group of educational, NGO and institutional partners, I'm trying to find an answer this question.
We're also looking at ways of teaching that can harness and redeploy the energy that has been unleashed in response to issues such as scarcity, mass-migration and the refugee crisis to explore values based on cooperation, collective action and mutual support.
It is, of course, just one way of addressing issues of cost and alienation, so a sub-plot. But with the cap on tuition fees about to be lifted and maintenance grants removed, it might just allow students to find a way of learning that is affordable, useful and free from the values and pressures that have made 26 per cent of current students ill.
We will see.
Robert Mull is curator of the exhibition Papers and talks series Turncoats, as well as the current shows about the Calais Jungle on London's South Bank. He is professor of architecture and design at the University of Brighton, a visiting professor in both Sweden and Moscow, and leader of the Free Unit. He was formerly director of architecture and dean of The Cass.