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Challenges facing planning education in the UK

06 April 2018 Author: John Sturzaker

There are more than 30 RTPI-accredited planning schools in the UK and abroad. The Planning Schools Forum (PSF) is the collective voice for all these schools and promotes the value of planning education in terms of teaching and research. 

What are the challenges faced by planning schools, and how are they responding to these challenges with new ways of doing things? 

Student recruitment

One challenge faced by all planning schools is to ensure they maintain a sustainable level of student numbers. Most people assume that the receipt of tuition fees means that UK universities are much better off than they were before fees were introduced. In fact, the fees have replaced funding from the Government, with the end result that planning schools have to ensure they recruit enough students to cover their staffing and other costs.

Planning schools are always reflecting on the programmes they offer to ensure they remain relevant to today’s students and considering new or revised programmes. Often these programmes might involve studying planning alongside another subject, such as geography or architecture. Another approach currently under development is the RTPI’s proposal for a Degree Apprenticeship, which could provide a new route into the profession at the same time as bringing new students to planning schools.

A second challenge is the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the UK Government’s assessment exercise for the quality of research undertaken at UK universities, with similar assessments in other countries. 

Practioners vs academics

The REF assesses and ranks the quality of publications, the impact of research beyond academia and the “research environment” of planning schools. The REF score received by planning schools is important because it affects how the UK Government assigns funding for future research, and because it is a significant part of the various tables used to rank universities in the UK and beyond. For this reason, the criteria used by many universities to recruit staff are increasingly dominated by the “REF-ability” of candidates.

This can mean that membership of the RTPI or experience as a practicing planner receive less weight than they may have done in the past. At the same time, one of the indicators the RTPI uses to assess whether planning schools should (continue to) be accredited by the Institute is that some members of academic staff are RTPI members.  With these two sets of demands, planning schools therefore have to strike a careful balance between recruiting staff who have clear planning practice experience and those who can be successful in academic jobs.

What is planning education really for?

A third challenge, linked to the last point, is the need for planning schools to balance their role as providers of the initial planning education for aspiring town planners and members of the RTPI, with the broader aspirations of universities. In the case of the University of Liverpool, where I work, this is to be “dedicated to the advancement of learning and ennoblement of life”, a grand ambition indeed!

Planning schools are often criticised for failing to prepare  graduates for life as a planning practitioner – the classic complaint is that planning students “are not shown a planning application form” at any time during their studies. This is not a new criticism; I can remember saying the same thing when I completed my initial planning education 15 years ago. 

However, we must remember that planning schools are not simply training the next generation of planning practitioners. Whilst one role of university education is, of course, to prepare students for the world of work, we have other responsibilities. In practical terms, many students on planning programmes do not go on to work in planning, so we need to ensure they develop the skills to work in a number of sectors.

But even for those students who do go on to become town planners, the Institute has identified a wide range of “professional planning skills” needed by its members, including creativity, leadership,  and the ability to work collaboratively, solve problems and resolve conflicts. Licentiates will develop these skills through the Assessment of Professional Competence process (to obtain Chartered status), but their initial education is critical to establishing planners’ abilities to think critically and challenge established ideas.

Planning schools therefore need to ensure they help students with these skills whilst making sure their graduates can “hit the ground running” in their first jobs. This is not a straightforward task, with visiting lecturers and client-based projects often used to combine analytical and practical learning.

The PSF will continue to liaise with the RTPI to ensure we all work together to address these challenges and promote the value of planning in the UK and around the world.

Views expressed are the author's own. Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.


John Sturzaker

John Sturzaker

John Sturzaker is the Chair of the Planning Schools Forum, the collective voice for planning schools in the UK.