BArch, MArch, DArch: Architectural Credential Inflation

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The Good Oil

Which professional degree—one allowing practice—should an architect have: a bachelors, masters or doctorate?

Full disclosure: Dr Garry does not have a masters in architecture, but he does have a couple of other degrees and a PhD in architecture. He does not have a DArch. Keep that in mind when you read this discussion. It might all be jealousy!

Credential inflation

Credential inflation is the process operating over decades or centuries in which entry to an occupation requires higher and higher credentials, more and more education, and increasing barriers to entry: an inevitable consequence of, as the French call it, the de facto numerus clausus. It's a process discretely swept under the carpet in the English-speaking countries, but real nonetheless. We discuss this at tedious length here.

Credential inflation is simply a response to the decreasing rarity of an occupation. All occupations like to keep themselves scarce on the ground: the fewer lawyers, engineers, barbers and Photoshop gurus there are, the fewer there are to share the economic capital of the whole, and—just as important—the fewer to share the social capital. How do they do that? By restricting entry. Whenever a flood of new entrants appears, the old guard creates a barrier. It then persuades the state to enforce this barrier. Done deal!

The great inflators: American lawyers

American lawyers are the prime and silliest example. The formal qualification system for that occupation collapsed in the mid-1800s. A fierce effort to restore it was made in the later 19th century, as the growing numbers of homespun lawyers (like Abraham Lincoln) threatened to devalue the social credibility of their Ivy league brethren. Until the early 1900s, the standard legal degree in the USA was the LLB (Bachelor of Laws), as it still is in the Commonwealth nations. Through the early 20th century, American universities inflated that into the JD (Juris Doctor), to be gained after first earning a bachelors. The move was calculated precisely to erect a barrier between the lower-class self-educated and the elite graduates.

The ludicrous result is that today the dimmest American law student graduates with a doctoral title. If he or she wants to pursue higher studies they proceed to a masters, although they are already technically Dr Pompous (and 'Esquire': American lawyers are bedazzled by titular trinkets).

Credential inflation in the USA

The person usually cited as the USA's greatest architect—Frank Lloyd Wright—never gained an earned degree. At the time of his death, most people calling themselves architects in the United States were— like him— lacking in fancy degrees: no bachelors, no masters, and certainly no doctoral quals. But just at that point the numbers of American architects started inflating (as we discuss here and here).

During the later half of the 20th century, a simple bachelors in architecture started looking decidedly sad. In 1960, an American baccalaureate could catch a taxi superior in the knowledge that his or her driver had no more than a high school education—if that. By 2000, cab drivers were often better educated than their passengers. Closer to home: when Wright died, only 8% of all working Americans had a bachelors degree or more. By 1980 it was 17%, by 1990 20%, by 2000 25%, and then in 2010 it was 30% (Source: U.S Census Bureau Statistical Abstract).

To ameliorate this deterioration in the relative status, architects in the 1980s and 1990s began pumping for free upgrades to their qualifications. The schools dutifully rebadged their courses as masters' degrees, and consented to relaunch a bachelors awarded 20 years ago as a shiny new masters (shame on you, Tulane!). No change in content, mind: just a rebranding. The results? Between 1965 and 1990 about 25% of American architecture students graduated with a masters. In 2010, nigh on 40% of American architecture students wore a masters gown to graduation day.

Masters graduates from US architecture schools as a proportion of all graduates. Source: National Center for Education Statistics.

The DArch: ultimate blimp

Every few generations American architects launch a Spring Offensive to pump-up their qualifications. The latest academic architectural fashion accessory is the idiotic DArch, now being pimped as the replacement for the BArch and MArch. Two arguments are made:

You may have worked out that we think the DArch is a bloody stupid idea as a terminal or professional degree (but as a research qualification? No problem). We are not at all convinced that even a masters is appropriate, let alone a doctoral title. In fact, we think that architecture should not be taught at universities at all!

Appealing to hubris and greed

The most-often put argument that American architects make for the DArch is sheer snobbery: the lawyers have doctoral degrees, so why not us? The architectural academics are looking forward to a double bonus: they will be able to swindle their universities into equating the DArch to the PhD if their old schools upgrade their un-earned credentials.

We respect the simple transparent greed of the argument. No attempt at rational argument: the fact that lawyers have something is justification in itself for the architects to have it. There's no arguing with that, really. If American architects demand to be called Esquire just because lawyers are…well, what is one to say? God help us if American architects discover that the most eminent British architects have titles. Once they look at Norman Foster, now Baron Foster of Thames Bank, can His Lordship Baron Gehry of Toronto1 be far behind?

Appealing to facts and reason

There is another argument for the DArch, one that appeals to facts and reason. One architectural academic passionately put the facts and figures like this:

The 3.5 year M.ARCH tract requires well over 90 graduate level credits (107-112 depending on when the student entered) in addition to the 120+/-undergraduate credits required prior to entering the program, thus qualifying the title of M.ARCH to be changed to D.ARCH. Most 3.5 year students end up with a minimum of 7.5 years of education and roughly 220 to 250 total credit hours of study. As a comparison, typical PhD programs average between 72 and 90 graduate credit hours and most traditional masters' programs average between 30 and 45 graduate credit hours. The 3.5 M.ARCH degree has been severely deflated in status due to a matter of semantics.

We respect the author's sincerity but have to say: bad move. The naive appeal to gross credit hours shows just how far architectural academics are removed from anything that could be called scholarly research. To facilely equate working hours from one qualification to another is to misunderstand the whole process.

Dr Garry had received 7.5 years of education by the time he got pubic hair, but he wasn't asking anyone to give him a doctorate for it. Let's take another example, one from Dr Garry's own Australia: a Sydney train driver receives a longer education than a NASA astronaut (no, we don't know why either). So we should be awarding train drivers doctorates?

Architecture students do not spend years in school to acquire skills and expertise. They'll get that when they actually land a job after graduation. They spend years in school to acquire class. You can read more in Dr Garry's book The Favored Circle.

A DArch is not a PhD

How can we phrase this without insulting anyone? We can't. Suffice it to say: one is awarded a PhD for a significant contribution to scholarship. There is nothing—nothing—in any professional architectural degree program (BArch, MArch, DArch) offered by any university in the English-speaking world that even comes close. And we've seen quite a few schools at first-hand. To argue that a professional degree in architecture equates to a PhD in other disciplines is beyond ludicrous.

The studio education that architects acclaim as critical consists simply of withered elders bashing potential entrants. Architecture schools are the Uncle Buck's of the academic world. The intellectual content and critical discourse of a BArch or MArch course would be considered risible in the BA offered by the same university. Architecture students are not taught to think critically, the hallmark of the BA degree. They are taught to acquiesce in the face of authority and to imitate the starchitects.

Credential inflation in other nations

Canada

The Canadian schools followed the American trend towards a masters and tumbled during the early 2000s, dropping their professional bachelors for gaudier nomenclature. At least they could claim good reason to rebrand, given the competition from their larger neighbour.

Australia

In the late 2000s the Australian schools decided to migrate their professional architectural degrees from a bachelors to a masters. The academics {professors} loved the idea: so much more prestigious to be teaching postgraduates than mere bachelors students. The course content changed not at all, but their standing in the academic community would increase immensely: no more would they be the gimps of academia. To justify the inflation, they seized upon the Bologna process, a European initiative to standardize qualifications. The move was lead by the oddly elusive Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia (AASA), an organisation as yet unknown to internet search engines.

The Australian schools proclaimed that they must follow a European system in which they had no part, no role and no relevance. Australian schools would deliver masters, not bachelors. They also applied to enter the 2010 Eurovision song contest.

The flimsy justification was to synchronize Australian and European degrees, so that Aussie backpacker architects could more readily find a podule in a Maltese firm, and hordes of Belgian ex-chocolatiers could comfily ply their architectural wares in Australia.

The rationale was beyond pathetic. Almost all foreign-trained architects in Australia are from the United Kingdom or the United States of America. The United Kingdom has ignored the Bologna process entirely, and the American schools have never heard of it.

1. Last we heard, Frank is still a citizen of Canada. Which means that, yes, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada (bless her old heart!), could give him just that title. Ok, there was kerfuffle about Lord Black, but surely that's been settled?