Is landscape education in the UK in free fall?

Recently (as every year for the last three) I was at Greenwich University in my role as an external examiner.  I find this a stimulating and rewarding experience. The work on display is always interesting and I find it useful to see the presentation techniques being used by students. The two courses which I examine (which are both excellent) are degree courses, one in garden design and the other in landscape architecture. In previous years, I have been amazed by the percentage of students for which this is a second career. In some years the proportion has been as high as 85 or 90%, although this year, those coming straight from school or almost so made up the majority of the students.

I have long been fascinated by just why it is that landscape design and garden design should be such a popular choice for second careerists. I suspect that many people are drawn to (or fall into) more profitable lines of work early on their careers, but become bored and want to search for something more rewarding. Others come from related fields (architecture, interior design, landscape contracting, etc.) and have perhaps come across garden/landscape design in the course of their work. At Greenwich, the two degree courses run alongside each other and there seems to be a reasonable degree of porosity, with students choosing (or transferring to) the course that suits them better. Some of the garden design graduates go on to do a masters in landscape architecture, but many go straight into practice.

As is well known, the education system has been going through some major upheavals in recent years. The first has been the transference of funding from direct government funding of teaching to the universities, to funding via increased tuition fees from students. The net effect of this has been that most universities have increased fees to almost the maximum (£9,000 per year). This means that a degree course will now cost students at least £25,000 for a degree, or much more if living and accommodation costs have to be taken into account. This has had an almost immediate impact on the level of applications.  The second change is the extra visa restrictions that Central Government has introduced to combat the abuse by some bogus colleges of educational visas. This catch-all measure has involved many bona-fide institutions in a considerable amount of extra work. It coincides with a diminishing capacity amongst universities to commit fully to the overseas marketing needed to fill these places because of budget cuts, particularly the legwork and paperwork needed to follow-up the initial marketing campaigns with actual places filled. All this sends a message to overseas students that they are not particularly welcome. Australia introduced similar measures a few years ago and additionally restricted the number of hours that students could work. Following dwindling applications from abroad and an AUS$3bn dollar gap in the education budget as a result, the Australian Government effectively did a U-turn in March 2012 and has (anecdotally) seen applications rising again.

For landscape architecture courses in this country the situation is in free-fall. One member of staff told me that according to the Landscape Institute, there were only 580 applications to landscape architecture degree courses from UK students last year. As he pointed out, if one takes out the multiple applications by students to different courses, this drops to around 120 unique applicants. Hardly enough to sustain a design industry, let alone the degree courses to train them. When I trained 30 years or more ago, there were over 300 applicants for 30 places on the landscape architecture degree course at Manchester Poly (Manchester Met as it is now). We started with 30 and finished with 15. The course was one of about six in the UK at that time, with a much smaller profession than now. If the figures of 120 are right (and I have not checked them) then there is a real crisis brewing. The course at Greenwich is excellent, amongst the best. We can little afford to lose any of the courses in the UK, but I suspect that many will struggle over the next few years. 

The Final Splash – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Finally finished! A view form an upstairs window - ignore the plastic furniture borrowed form the Triangle Community Garden!

So here we are. Sixteen weeks of mud, sweat and tears. Finally after all that, the pool emerges from the building site like an enormous butterfly, transformed from the ungainly caterpillar of the last few months into a fully formed swimming pond. Or it would have done if we had managed to get the planting in the surrounding borders finished – my fault, by the way. All those fine words about which plants we were using didn’t actually get them ordered on time. And although Rochfords and Provender did their best to get to site in time (and partly succeeded) there wasn’t actually enough time to plant them before the party.

After a mad sprint to the line (including Glen plumbing up the pump and jets on Saturday morning), the party is a great success. Lots of people go in the pool, including an inaugural swim by Vicky in her birthday suit (the new wet suit I gave her for her birthday, that is). We warm up around the firepit and watch the sun go down over the water.

Trees, water and sky

Despite the sixteen weeks of mess and mud, it is a thing of beauty. As Allan Pollok-Morris put it – “WOW, that’s not a pool, it’s a chunk of heaven!” As I sit on our terrace on the Sunday evening and look at it, everything seems very worthwhile. Watching the sunset reflected on the still water, the pool achieves exactly what we wanted. The reflection of the trees and the sky in the water stirs something very deep inside me. I recall Rick Darke saying that for him, Landscape is all about trees and water. To that I would add sky.

So what have we learnt in this process? Well, clearly a lot about the technical aspects of natural pool construction. Lots of people said we were mad to put so many curves into the design, but I am glad we did – it really makes the scheme – lesson one: ‘stick to your guns’. The curves made it more difficult to detail, to construct and more expensive. But without them the pool would feel inserted into the garden. As it is, it feels as though it merges with the landscape. Once the planting gets established, it will wrap around the pool.

We started the process without having thought everything through. So perhaps lesson two should be ‘plan everything thoroughly’. Although, as I said to my brother on Saturday night, had we known how much it was going to cost and what was involved, we would probably never have embarked on the whole process. ‘A bit like having children’ was his answer. Not that I have any regrets about the pond, or the children. Lesson two therefore – ‘Do what you want to do and don’t worry too much about the detail until you need to’. Not a good work lesson, but not a bad life one.

Once the planting is more established and everything has settled in, I will post some more pictures. In the meantime, normal service on a wide range of subjects (and gripes) will resume…