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. 

5 responses on “Is landscape education in the UK in free fall?

  1. Julia

    As you say John, the future looks cloudy but difficulties can kick start a reinvention process. Education is business, of course, but from a training or teaching point of view I would rather support and help the few who are keen and passionate about their chosen subject than a greater number who are less interested for a variety of reasons and mostly don’t enter the profession anyway.
    Maybe the professional bodies should have greater contact with the Universities and Colleges and discuss practical opportunities in the form of scholarships and other traineeships? Your comments are always valuable by the way.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Julia
      I don’t disagree with your comments about wanting worthwhile students, but unfortunately in the current climate it seems to be all about numbers. All the students I saw were really keen and virtually all were going into the profession.

      I think you are bang on with your comments on the professional organisations getting more involved. The LI does get involved of course (there is some disagreement amongst professionals about the efficacy of this), but the SGD’s involvement is more cursory and there is a good argument that it should be reviewed and strengthened. I am also sympathetic to your arguments about industry involvement – as you may or may not know Greenwich have asked me informally on a couple of occasions to consider how B&W might promote excellence in some way through sponsorship or an award. I feel that unless we have a concerted effort amongst individuals in the profession then the future looks pessimistic.

  2. julia

    It is about numbers of course. And my comment on the worthwhile few who take off and fly superbly is only a personal view. Also this year the group was short on students from abroad that often bring an added dimension but it was a good year with many working hard and achieving consequently. Involvement from the industry needs to be sparked – it appears that nurseries + contractors want to get involved with graduates for show garden purposes – a good thing and marketing happens accordingly. But marketing is sorely lacking from the educational establishments – quite a few ex Hadlow + Greenwich graduates won medals at Chelsea this year – a big opportunity lost. On the SGD front, most students from H+G see little point in joining. they regard The SGD as full of old dears like me – and of course they’re right. More join from private schools and some schools offer membership has part of the fee package. One problem is the dull image of the GDJ and the price of tickets for symposia. If the SGD had a presence at the final show or offered to visit and see studio sessions then there may be a useful coming together. A 2nd year student competition sponsored by SGD + BALI for a Hampton Court garden?? Just the two of us on this debate ?

  3. Nicola

    John
    Many people I have worked with as Landscape Architects started their professional lives in other careers – Librarian, Geologist, French teacher, artist for example. They wanted to do do something more worthwhile, more fuzzy and furry – few of them were good strong designers and many ended up working in the ‘greener’ or rural type of jobs.
    We need strong designers with an understanding of the other construction professions and scientific and engineering knowledge to turn the good designs into reality.

    I found out the other that the the Landscape Courses in the UK are not longer accredited by the LI directly, they are self accrediting! Therefore we are providing standards and types of teaching on the different courses. I believe it’s time that the LI actually took some responsibility, after all, these are vocational courses. We recently took on a ‘year out’ student who had no experience with CAD. After further conversations with her and some of her fellow students, it tuned out that none of them had actually drawn up planting plans!!!!
    Greenwich is not holding its annual Professional Practice Course this year due to a drop in numbers for P2C candidates, which follows the theme of a general drop in numbers. We too are experiencing number reduced from 100’s 4 or 5 years ago, to 20 -30.
    An erosion of the profession! I do believe genuinely that this is due to lack of promotion by the LI, lack of understanding of what we do by all (public and professionals), lack of promotion by us as ambassadors for our profession, and not having a prominent ‘figurehead’ or ‘celebrity’. Also the perception that other professions appear to to be able to do what we do!

    Its one of our weekly debates at TGP – —–how to promote landscape architecture.!

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Nicola

      Thanks for your comments – appreciated as always. I wasn’t aware that accreditation worked like that. I do agree that the LI should be more concerned about this than it currently appears to be. Indeed, we all should. There are so few Landscape Architects coming through the system now that I struggle to see how we are to sustain the profession in the future. What is more, we seem to be hell-bent on making it as hard as possible for the universities to effectively recruit foreign students.

      I agree with you that a key player in this is the LI. In the 60s -80s it had a crucial role to play in development of the further education and development of professional practice. The latter has continued develop, but if it is not being fed by a steady flow of students it won’t get us very far. And, as you also point out, promotion of the profession as a whole by the Institute is lacking. In the past, as the profession expanded naturally this was not a problem, but it is beginning to come home to roost now. Drastic action is called for.

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