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Architectural apprenticeships might seem a cheap option for an education, but they are the first step to transforming the relationship between employers and educators, argues Timothy Brittain-Catlin.

Yes: the viability of architectural apprenticeship schemes could be threatened by a major economic recession, as the AJ reported earlier this month. Yet a properly constructed relationship between a university and an employer should provide the latter with long-term stability, and it is possible to devise an imaginative apprenticeship programme that does just that.

The potential problem with Part 1 and Part 2 apprenticeship courses is that they can look like the cheap option; apprentices are part-time participants in a university, feeding off left-over time and resources, and without benefiting from any of the academic community experience.

At the same time, employers are kept on the outside, uninvolved with any of the educational processes, and repeatedly annoyed that an assistant disappears every week from the office – often travelling, as Ing, says, a long distance. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

'Five years of full-time study is too expensive in terms of time and money'

The first step is to see apprenticeship programmes as being a fundamental part of a restructuring of the relationship between employers and architectural training. We know what the current problems are: five years of full-time study is too expensive in terms of time and money, and much of the most imaginative teaching is too far removed from what assistants can put into practice at work, especially as post-Part 2 assistants.

In 1985, as a Part 2 Bartlett student myself, I wrote a furious letter to the AJ saying just that. On the other hand, the old system of doing articles was simply boring for many, especially for those cooped up in an office with little scope to expand their creative and intellectual imaginations.

It is possible to break this cycle when a university establishes a new kind of relationship with an employer, acting as a resource centre offering a mutual exchange of information and talent.

We are used to the idea that a commercial organisation, for example a research-intensive manufacturer, can play a role in achieving the wider aims of an educational institution. Some, indeed, see these relationships as vital to the continuing strength of universities. An architecture school can offer a reverse process: it can and should provide its apprentices (and thus their employers) with direct access to the latest in technical, theoretical, material, urban planning and historical research, and artistic processes.

It should also ensure that they are encouraged to take up the full range of social and cultural opportunities that a university can offer. And those of us involved in creating apprenticeship schemes believe very strongly that they are enabling a more diverse entry into the profession.

'Architecture schools can be in the vanguard, rather than taking up their traditional position'

Wise heads were predicting before the pandemic that universities would change more in the coming couple of years than in the previous 50: architecture schools can be in the vanguard here, rather than taking up their traditional position some decades behind the other professions.

An apprenticeship costs an employer money in the short term. But it reduces recruitment costs and encourages engagement with the workplace. It is ideal for highly motivated and talented assistants who this way can see clearly see their route into responsible positions in the office over the medium and longer term.

At Cambridge we go one stage further and offer a learning plan with flexible offsite training days, which can be structured to suit even a highly pressurised office schedule. Given that training costs are subsidised by the Apprenticeship Levy, it seems like a bargain.

And to partner your employees with a research university is to mark yourself out as an employer of choice. This is the first step in a revolution in architectural education.

Timothy Brittain-Catlin leads the MSt Architecture Apprenticeship course at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge.

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Originally published in Architects' Journal: October 2020.

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