The Royal Institute of British Architects is proposing the biggest shake-up of architecture degree courses in decades. The present five years of training are to be split into undergraduate and postgraduate elements.
Some school heads fear the restructuring could jeopardise their block grant for teaching students over five years and, as a result, force some schools to close.
Leonie Milliner, RIBA's director of education, is aware of these concerns.
She says the institute will consult on the proposals and will look particularly at their financial effects for schools.
The institute has not yet formally consulted either the Department for Education and Employment or the funding councils about the implications of the proposal. "We believe many schools will welcome the proposals. RIBA certainly does not feel the restructuring should lead to any closures. The essence of the proposals is to maintain schools," Ms Milliner said.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has issued a statement that appears to allay these concerns. A spokesman said: "HEFCE funds undergraduate and taught postgraduate students in the same price groups at the same level. Therefore a change from a five-year to a three-year undergraduate programme plus a two-year postgraduate programme would not change the block grant funding allocated by the HEFCE to an institution."
But not all heads are convinced. "Until I see it signed and delivered by the DFEE, I will not believe it," said one.
At present most students embarking on a seven-year architecture course study three years to achieve Part I qualification, followed by a practical year. This is followed by another two years of undergraduate study leading to a Part 2 qualification, with a final practical year to achieve Part 3.
Under RIBA's proposal Part 1 becomes a three-year undergraduate course preparing students for postgraduate study. Part 2 would be turned into a postgraduate qualification, typically a diploma or taught masters, with Part 3 becoming a second postgraduate qualification, to provide a "more rigorous entry into the profession".
Launching the consultation document last week, Sir Colin Stansfield Smith, head of the team that developed the proposals, said the changes are necessary to address shortcomings in the relationship between practice, training, research and the construction industry.
The proposals aim to create a "more work-based" approach that will bridge this "disconnection".
Sir Colin, professor of architectural design at Portsmouth University, said "the current degree framework does not sufficiently encourage research" and "we desperately need a postgraduate platform for original high quality research." He believes research has been damaged by the "gulf" between practice and academia.
The consultation document says: "The architectural community has to overcome more than 40 years of dispute around the nature of architectural research, in order to meet these challenges... architectural education requires an academic framework that allows it to compete with other subject areas in the research field."
Sir Colin has sought to reassure heads of schools that the proposals do not threaten the full five-year training, and that the splitting of courses is not an invitation to government to begin pressing for shorter courses: "There is absolutely no question that we are giving up the five years - that battle has been fought in the past and won."
Sir Colin said the proposals also seek to address the "globalisation" of architecture education and competitive pressures faced by British institutions in attracting overseas students. He said: "Institutions in countries like Singapore have already made the kind of changes we have yet to make. British courses are hugely popular overseas and to maintain and build upon this we must make sure we are at the cutting edge of these global changes."
According to the institute, a total of 9,100 students are studying on RIBA accredited courses in 35 schools of architecture. Overseas students accounted for 20 per cent of the first-year intake on architecture degree courses in Britain last year.
The proposals are a result of a RIBA review of architectural education and training launched in 1997. As part of the consultation process the institute is next week launching a website with the address: www.riba.netvision