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Responding to the crisis in landscape education

By Hayley Hannan
Is there a crisis in landscape education? A decline in student numbers has placed greater pressure on the education system. What can be done to raise the profile of the profession and attract the kind of students the profession needs to meet future challenges?

Everything begins with education,’ writes Sir Terry Farrell in the Farrell Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, an industry-wide review published this year, led by Sir Terry Farrell and commissioned by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey.
 
It’s a simple statement that applies to every profession. Landscape architecture begins with students who are trained, equipped with professional skills and develop a culture, attitude and set of values. Their imaginations and creative problem-solving skills are teased, stretched and strengthened over four to five years of study. 
 
The feedback from current landscape-architecture students is largely positive, citing a stimulating, challenging and fulfilling mixture of building a broad knowledge base, practical skills, enjoyable course content and interactions. The LI-accredited courses enjoy high employment rates following graduation. Anecdotal evidence from practitioners points to increasing project numbers, picking up momentum following a temporary reduction after the global financial crisis. However, the public sector still faces contraction. 
 
Edwin Knighton, head of landscape architecture at Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Metropolitan University), says that the number of undergraduates joining is smaller now than when he began teaching, more than 25 years ago. ‘Student applications to undergraduate courses have declined noticeably over the last five to ten years – this trend seems to be continuing,’ he says.
 
In contrast, Knighton says, a growing number are joining postgraduate courses. The reason for the overall drop in undergraduate students is unclear, he says.
 
‘We’re having problems identifying what the problem is. There’s certainly an issue about the profile of landscape architecture – or lack of a profile – with 16–19 year olds. Despite all these big projects we hear about – the Eden Project, the Olympics – we’re still not getting our message across to school kids and to college kids about this fantastic subject as a possible career.’
 
According to LI figures, the number of students has risen and fallen since 2005 (see table). Overall joining numbers sit at 332 in 2013, which is 15 below the 347 recorded in 2005. The overall joining levels temporarily climbed to 528 joiners in 2008 and 532 in 2009, but have been falling since 2011, when the course fee increased from around £1500 – 2000 per year, to £6000+ per year. 
 
Andrew Jones, careers and education officer at the Landscape Institute, says that the falling numbers of students joining courses do not tell the whole story.
 
‘There has always been a degree of flux in numbers, relative to industry requirements and other factors at any given time,’ he says. ‘If we look back to 2005/06, the number of undergraduate joiners was reported to the LI as 202; in 2012/13 the total number of undergraduate joiners to accredited landscape courses was 212. Yet following that year, two undergraduate courses closed reporting low student recruitment. 
 
‘Why were these numbers acceptable in 2006 but not acceptable in 2013? The answer lies in the broader changes within higher education under the current government, and the increased financial pressures placed on academia to perform economically under this new model. The fact is that the amount of money a course costs to run, against how much money it brings in, is under closer scrutiny than ever before. And landscape architecture needs to respond to this.’

Two LI-accredited courses have closed within the last three years – the Bachelor in Landscape Architecture at Kingston University and at Manchester School of Architecture (Manchester Metropolitan University, MMU). Edward Fox, programme leader for landscape architecture at MMU, suggests that landscape architecture courses are closing due to ‘unsustainably’ low numbers of students and applicants.
 
‘UCAS statistics demonstrate a steadily shrinking number of applicants to the K310 course code (the code for landscape architecture), and in the end that is the bottom line for universities. The institutional context within which landscape departments operate is also a contributing factor. Most departments are within faculties of art and design, and many are considered a subset of architecture. In a market-driven education sector, when management are ever-more focused on the economic viability of courses, small landscape programmes are a tempting target.’
 
He agrees that the cause of dropping student figures is hard to pinpoint. ‘It’s very difficult to answer and none of us in the academic world has any convincing explanations,’ he said. Low graduate numbers have consequences for the profession, he says: ‘This will lead to wage inflation and difficulty in filling posts, falling standards due to universities having to accept lower grades in order to fill courses, a loss of expertise in the academic sector and a loss of research into areas of interest for the profession.’
 
Addressing student interest levels in joining university courses is also on the government’s agenda. A current proposal to remove student number caps could result in an influx of students. In 2014–15, the cap will increase by 30,000 students and, from 2015–16, universities will be able to recruit as many students as they like. 
 
A call for change weaves its way throughout many discussions. In particular, the Farrell review calls for integration between planning, landscape, architecture, conservation and engineering professions from schooling to retirement to reform education, governmental decisions, cities, towns and conservation of an increasingly interconnected and rapidly evolving economic landscape. 
 
In a move to raise the profile of landscape architecture as a viable career, and increase the number of students studying landscape architecture, the Landscape Institute will work closely with the Standing Conference of Heads of Landscape Architecture (SCHOLA). It will also work with LI branches, members, practitioners, current landscape architecture students and Pathway to Chartership candidates, to provide new career promotional materials, clear and defined messages, and encourage school presentations and events promoting landscape architecture. A Landscape Futures – Future of Education event will run in early 2015 specifically to explore the topic and raise awareness, while a nationwide regional press PR campaign will promote the profession.
 
The careers scheme will roll out in stages, starting from late 2014. Andrew Jones explained the new approach. ‘Education is a marketplace, and landscape needs to find a way to compete,’ he said. ‘It needs to re-assert itself within this new economically minded playing field. Landscape architecture needs to rise to the challenge of how to market itself.’
 
Extensive research has informed the LI’s approach. Two surveys carried out in early 2014 of LI members and current students provide key indications of why people enter the landscape profession, as well as of their aspirations and job satisfaction. The results paint a picture of passionate, dedicated professionals with an interest in protecting the environment, improving places for people and making cities more liveable through innovative planning, spaces, renewable energy and green infrastructure. Both groups are stimulated by the broad knowledge required by, and used within, the profession, and by the fact that so many subjects are brought together in landscape architecture.
 
The surveys show evidence of a fragmented and highly varied route to entering the profession. Although the majority of members found out about landscape architecture from a school career service (18.2%), university material (16%), or a family member or a friend (14.2%), an impressively large number of students found out about landscape architecture through the signature site, ‘I want to be a landscape architect’ (17.48%).


 
Based on these insights, the message of landscape architecture as an attractive and rewarding profession will be spread through online media, careers materials, university careers and SCHOLA communication, and by word of mouth through LI member, practitioner, P2C candidate and LI branch presentations and events and member involvement. Audiences will be targeted through specific outlets. 
 
An overhaul of the I want to be a Landscape Architect website (launched in early 2008) has resulted in the Be a Landscape Architect campaign and supporting promotional careers materials. The new brand is clear, strong and visual. The image-led website and supporting promotional material focus on the big issues that landscape architects tackle (green infrastructure, sustainable urban drainage, health and wellbeing, housing). The messages are targeted at 16–19 year olds, career changers, students enrolled in related courses (art & design, geography, architecture), and existing professionals. The new content, images, case studies, videos, profiles, professional industry and career course information all focus on defining and simplifying the complex, inspiring and widely varied profession. 
 
Plans for a nationwide regional landscape professional career push, with involvement from LI members, branches and Pathway to Chartership candidates, are currently being developed.
 
Chris Sheridan, head of education and membership at the  LI, says the careers campaign should help support universities, encourage student joiners and promote and further define the profession.  
 
‘We will specifically target students at the FE and HE level studying topics that our surveys show informed current students’, he said. ‘We will also target school students by providing materials that members can use in classroom presentations. I’m sure this has been done before in some capacity. We know that branches/devolved nations are active in this area. Perhaps what is different this time is that we will work with SCHOLA, our university partners. We will also embed this activity so that it becomes part of our annual cycle of work.’
 
At an individual level, landscape professionals can help to boost the profession by simply taking the time to explain what landscape architecture is and achieves. As Gethin Owens, principal landscape architect at Groundwork explains, getting out into schools and colleges to talk about the profession and inspire pupils to become landscape architects is critical. 
 
‘The profession plays a leading role on many key issues of today i.e. green infrastructure, water, housing etc. and I believe this can stimulate meaningful engagement and inspiration at all ages,’ he says.
 
‘Trying to tap into the national curriculum and generate discussions about landscape architecture at the earliest stage of someone’s education is fundamental. By bringing landscape architecture into the classroom, we hope to inspire as many young people as possible to enroll at university and become the landscape architects of the future.’
 
Edward Fox warned, ‘Education is the foundation stone of any profession and we neglect it at our peril. We should ask ourselves what is it we want and need as a profession. Ultimately, what we need are graduates with the confidence, skill and vision to lead and frame the debates affecting the human environments of the future.’
 
To get involved and represent the profession, engage with a young audience, a school, college or academy, contact careers and education officer Andrew Jones on [email protected] or 020 7685 2656. 
 
An Education Series featuring in-depth interviews about the current landscape architecture education situation, and possible steps forward, will be published on the Landscape Institute blog throughout December. The series includes interviews with former LI president Jo Watkins, Alister Kratt, Partner at LDA Design and Ian Houlston, Associate at LDA Design. Visit http://www.landscapeinstitute.co.uk/news/Blog to read more. New recruitment material and advice for school presentations will also be available from the LI website.

Hayley Hannan is communications officer (education and membership) at the Landscape Institute

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