Architectural qualifications in SA – intentions, impacts and issues

Gerald Steyn, a Research Professor in the Department of Architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology, examines the state of architectural education in South Africa. He is responsible for coordinating the postgraduate programme and is chairperson of SACAP’s Validation and Heads of Schools Committees and a member of the Standards Generating Body (SGB) for Architecture

The setting for architectural qualifications in South Africa has seen some radical changes during the last decade. One of the main reasons was the promulgation of the Architectural Profession Act (Act 44 of 2000). This Act prescribed the registration of practitioners in one of four categories – those of Professional Architect, Professional Senior Architectural Technologist, Professional Architectural Technologist and Professional Architectural Draughtsperson. The intention was that each category would signify a specific professional focus and an appropriate level of training. Prior to that, institutions offering architectural programmes could still proclaim that they were in the business of teaching architecture and not of training architects. The Act, however, gave the newly constituted South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) considerable powers with regard to education, including the accreditation of academic institutions and their programmes. This created the need for architectural education to become more practice-orientated, and for exit levels and concomitant qualifications to be aligned with the registration categories. It was also necessary to re-curriculate for compatibility with the envisaged Identification of Work principles.

A second reason was that the Act gave SACAP a mandate to negotiate the recognition of qualifications and professional status of registered persons in other countries. For decades a five-year BArch degree was the prerequisite qualification for registration as a candidate architect, followed by an MArch for those interested in researching some specialised topic. When South Africa was allowed to rejoin the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA) – the main international accreditation bodies – it was found that they had adopted the Part 1 and Part 2 Validation arrangement and that most schools of architecture in the Commonwealth countries and in the United States had started to offer a Bachelor’s degree in general architectural studies, followed by a Professional Master’s in Architecture, structured in such a way that both degrees can be obtained during a period of five years’ uninterrupted, full-time and dedicated study.

A third reason was the compulsory merging of certain universities and technikons, and the consequent reshuffling of the entire higher educational landscape. Technikons became Universities of Technology with a resulting shift in emphasis to research and postgraduate training. SACAP had by then signed the Joint SACAP/RIBA/CAA Validation Agreement and started sending Inspection Boards to all institutions offering architectural education (now called Architectural Learning Sites for the sake of uniformity). The Department of Architecture at the former Technikon Pretoria (now the Tshwane University of Technology) was the first Architectural Learning Site (ALS) outside the traditional university sphere to receive both Part 1 and Part 2 Validation. Its students graduated with MTech degrees and were, in government and parastatal institutions, ranked higher than their colleagues with five-year BArch degrees, to the utter, and understandable, indignation of the latter.

All these events naturally forced a drastic rethink of the qualifications structure and, by implication, the structural adjustment of programme contents. It became abundantly clear that we would have to comply with the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and also follow the example of architectural schools in the United Kingdom and the United States by instituting a three year Bachelor’s followed by a two year Master’s, which may include a Bachelor Honours. The two-degree professional stream is now being adopted and implemented without too much resistance, but that transition was accompanied by some confusion regarding the nature of the newly instituted degrees. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) cautions: ‘It implies more than just changing names and numbers’.

There are, for example, instances of Professional Master’s programmes without a course in research methodology. Fortunately, the new Higher Education Qualifications Framework (HEQF) was published recently, which provided some clues (Government Gazette No. 928 of 5 October 2007). It introduced a new protocol of nomenclatures for qualifications, a new stream of certificates and diplomas, and a revised scale of credit values and NQF levels. Each credit denotes ten hours of learning, whether in the classroom, studio, at home or in the workplace (in the case of Work Integrated Learning, or WIL), but in architectural programmes, this is of course hypothetical – design projects demand much more time! What is significant about the NQF is that each level is essentially a description of the mandatory learning level of a qualification in terms of the depth and range of knowledge, understanding, application and problem-solving skills, and competencies that a learner must have acquired before a qualification can be awarded. The integration of these principles is shown in the table below. This framework will certainly impact dramatically on qualifications in the near future and some aspects deserve clarification.

CATEGORYCandidate Professional Degree Diploma Credits(1 credit = 10 hours) NQF Level
Architect M Arch (Prof) 660 cumulative minimum 9
Senior Technologist B Arch (Prof)BAS Honours PG Diploma 480 cumulative minimum 8
Technologist Advanced Dip 7
BAS 360 cumulative minimum
Diploma 6
Advanced Cert + 1 year WIL
Draughtsperson 240 cum. min.
Higher Cert 120 + 1 year WIL 5

Offerings by Universities of Technology

An early misconception that caused some consternation in certain circles was the interpretation that the former Technikons would not be allowed to offer degree programmes. That is simply not true. Pages five and six of the document entitled Frequently Asked Questions on the HEQF state that qualification types that do not appear on the HEQF ‘including B Tech’ will be ‘phased out’, but add that ‘all higher education institutions may offer any qualification type in the HEQF’. It is clearly explained in the Gazette on pages seven and eight how (say) a B Tech: Architecture (Professional) will be renamed B Arch (Professional).

The nature and purpose of the certificate/diploma stream

The certificates and diplomas are, as the Gazette emphasises, ‘vocational or industry oriented’. In this manner the Advanced Diploma (Level 7) is described as ‘particularly suitable for continuing professional development’. The purpose of the Postgraduate Diploma (Level 8) is ‘to enable working professionals to undertake advanced reflection and development’. A student can also progress from certificate and diploma programmes into degree programmes. The certificates and diplomas are unquestionably based on extensive workplace experience and imminently suited to part-time study, as well as for older persons wishing to improve their qualifications and maybe upgrade their category of registration.

SACAP will, through its validation system, determine whether a qualification meets the requirements for registration as set out in its competency matrix. As the previous table shows, the successful completion of a validated BAS Honours, BArch (Prof) and a Postgraduate Diploma all seem to qualify an applicant for registration as a Candidate Senior Architectural Technologist, as does a Diploma augmented with one year of Work Integrated Learning (WIL).

Impact on Master’s programmes

The Government Gazette states unambiguously (p.27): “The primary purposes of a Master’s Degree are to educate and train researchers who can contribute to the development of knowledge at an advanced level, or prepare graduates for advanced and specialised professional employment. A Master’s Degree must have a significant research component.”

The MArch by Research that was historically awarded two years (usually more!) after graduating with a five-year BArch degree has proved problematic. At a number of architectural schools in South Africa, the Professional Master’s is now considered the prerequisite for the Research Master’s. In terms of the NQF, however, a Master’s is a Master’s and is pitched at NQF level 9. Master’s degrees should, therefore, be offered in parallel as shown below. The difference is simply that the Professional Master’s combines 50 percent design content with roughly the same proportion of research, while the Research Master’s is dominated by research and methodological issues.

A Research Master’s can also be a history, theory, technology or management-based degree with a suitable nomenclature. In the UK we find, for example, a MSc in the Conservation of Historic Buildings, an MPhil in the History and Theory of Architecture, as well as the more open-ended MPhil by Research. Such qualifications (if suitably specialised) might conceivably allow a graduate to register with another statutory body, such as that of project managers, but do not allow registration as a professional with SACAP.

360       A Doctoral degree in architecture by research   10
180-240   A Master’s degree in architecture (professional)[may include an honours]   A Master’s degree in architecture by research[may include an honours]   9Honours = 8
360-480   A professional Bachelor’s degree in architecture (480 credits) or a Bachelor’s in general architectural studies (360 credits)       BArch (Prof) = 8BAS = 7

Structuring a professional programme

The most widely accepted arrangement is to offer – as a first degree – a Bachelor’s degree in Architectural Studies. This Bachelor’s can be as general (with many electives) or as focussed (with no electives) as an institution desires. Crucially important here is still that the Bachelor’s must comply with the 50 percent design content required for Part 1 Validation. Students who choose not to follow the professional stream can cross over to the research stream after completing the Bachelor’s.

A Professional Master’s must equally comply with the 50 percent rule. The requirement is embedded in the Joint SACAP/RIBA/CAA Validation Agreement and is considered sacrosanct. SAQA accepts this condition and – noting that design is supported from natural and human sciences – encourages that those fields make up the balance in roughly equal proportions. To understand its impact it is necessary to adopt a holistic (and somewhat philosophical) view. Architecture can be broadly defined as the art and science of construction, and to truly contextualise its human-environmental relationships it is appropriate to consider a spectrum of design from detailing a doorknob to conceptualising urban interventions. A school can pitch its design focus at either end, or at intermittent aspects along the continuum. It is clear that a construction assignment can also count as ‘design’, provided it allows for analytical and creative thinking.

Academic drift and duplication

The fact that all architectural programmes leading to registration as a candidate professional must be validated, and that all must therefore comply with the 50 percent prerequisite, is having some unexpected consequences. On the one hand, programmes at Universities of Technology have had to increase their theory and history contents in order to inform design decision-making. On the other, the traditional universities (now called Comprehensive Universities) had to improve technology and construction components, as well as computer skills, in order to achieve more vocational-orientated learning outcomes and to enhance the employability of their graduates. The inevitable result is that the programmes are becoming increasingly similar.

Three cities are now home to both Universities of Technology and Comprehensive Universities with Architectural Learning Sites. These are Cape Town (University of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology), Pretoria (University of Pretoria and the Tshwane University of Technology) and Durban (University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Durban University of Technology). At the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, a Department of Architecture coexists somewhat uneasily with a Department of Architectural Technology on the same floor. Johannesburg has two architectural institutions at Comprehensive Universities (University of the Witwatersrand and University of Johannesburg).

It is inevitable and logical that Validation Visits are being rationalised and that Inspection Boards do both sites consecutively in one week. Their visions, niches, methods and products will obviously be compared, and very soon the issue of duplication of qualifications and the redundancy of programmes can be expected to surface. The current world-wide demand for architects and technologists is simply delaying the debate that must follow. But already observers are asking what makes qualifications earned at Universities of Technology different from those awarded by Comprehensive Universities. And the uniformity of nomenclatures prescribed by the new HEQF is going to make this question even more pertinent.

The downside

A regrettable casualty of this new dispensation is the traditional five-year B Arch degree. Suddenly it became evident that the architectural fraternity did itself a huge disfavour by adopting the five-year Bachelor’s in stark contrast to most other disciplines that traditionally had the multiple-degree approach. Some of the most talented architects in this country have a five-year BArch degree, and while SACAP unconditionally accepts the qualification for registration as a Candidate Professional Architect, universities and SAQA are reluctant to consider equivalence with the Professional Master’s degree that replaced it. The argument is that it lacks the intellectual depth and familiarisation with research methodology that are associated with Master’s degrees. This simply means that those architects – the cream of the profession – are not only excluded from senior teaching positions, but also from supervising and examining Master’s candidates since an increasing number of universities insist on higher degrees. A solution might be for SACAP (in collaboration with the universities) to consult with the Council for Higher Education (CHE) and SAQA and develop a compact, part-time ‘top-up’ course that focuses on research methodology as applicable to solving complex real-life problems in the built environment and upgrade the ‘old’ BArch degrees of candidates to an MArch (by whatever name).


I firmly believe that the framework for architectural qualifications in this country has great potential to ensure that qualifications allow personal development and self-improvement, programmes allow mobility between schools and that international comparability is achieved. But there are issues that demand urgent attention. First, Universities of Technology and Comprehensive Universities must define their roles. Second, early exit levels mean early entrance into practice, and this highlights an indisputable need to strengthen practice-orientated subjects in undergraduate programmes. In fact, the preparation for Professional Practice Examination is so weak that the possibility of schools offering Part 3 programmes that would include the examination in Professional Practice and Management must now be seriously considered. Third, if we wish to retain those architects in possession of five-year BArch degrees to mentor and examine our future professionals, a scheme will have to be devised to draw them formally, rapidly and painlessly into the current qualification system.

The views expressed are those of Professor Gerald Steyn and do not reflect an institutional position.