An interview with AA Registrar Marilyn Dyer
05 April 2014 Registrar's Office, Architectural Association   The results of the recent school-wide referendum on whether we should undertake an application for Degree Awarding Powers were announced this week. 61% of the school community voted and of this sample, an overwhelming 91% cast their ballot in favour of applying. In order to uncover what exactly this means for the School and its future we spoke to Registrar Marilyn Dyer to tell us, from her unique perspective of working at the AA for over four decades, why it is imperative to act now.   To clarify, what are Degree Awarding Powers? Degree Awarding Powers (DAP) bestow an institution with the independent authority to award its students’ degrees. In our case it will give us, as the Architectural Association (AA), the opportunity to award degrees for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes without the need to align with or depend on any other institution. This will benefit all our students whether they are from the UK, the EU or are International.   What will achieving Degree Awarding Powers mean for the future of the AA? For more than a hundred years the AA has fiercely defended its intellectual and financial freedom. It is important for the School Community to realise that changes in accreditation and regulations are affecting all higher education institutions and penalising small, specialist schools, such as ours. DAP will reinforce and help protect the School’s independence.   It is not always evident to staff and students that the AA has been forced to conform to many changes that have taken place in education due to continual adjustments in UK government and European regulations and validation criteria. For some time now the Registrar’s Office has been undertaking a great deal of administrative work not just to maintain our independence but also to protect it for the future. Every time we believe the School has adhered to another new regulation or law, we realise that the rules have been altered yet again.   We therefore have to inventively rethink once again how to comply and yet – crucially – not undermine the ethos of the School.   For example, over the last five years in the Registrar’s Office, Sabrina and I have taken a great deal of time and care trying to prevent any confusion when students who wish to proceed with higher education at a different institution need to explain their AA qualifications and state the equivalence to an outside body. This is especially problematic at undergraduate level where the AA Intermediate Examination Part 1 is not classified as a first degree. Obviously within architectural circles people do understand what this qualification means but if a student wishes to gain entry for a different subject in higher education, it becomes very difficult to say what the AA Intermediate Part 1 is equivalent to. The only way we have been able to provide an explanation that has been received in other academic institutions as acceptable is to quote the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement in Architecture.   We have also experienced difficulty with our degree qualifications being ratified by the Open University (OU) at graduate level resulting in questions such as, are we a correspondence course?! Obviously we are not but it becomes confusing for outside bodies who look at a student’s application for higher education and wonder how a degree from the AA comes via the OU.
The question of whether to proceed or not with our application comes from looking at the very real complexities that face our School on a daily basis. For example, DAP would greatly help International Students with the stringent UK Border Agency requirements and likewise assist home and EU students with the student loan process.   I believe the application for DAP is the only way forward.  Without it I honestly don’t believe the AA will be able to survive in the long term: we will either be forced to amalgamate with another institution or we could cease to exist altogether.   From your perspective as AA Registrar, did the QAA process open doors towards making this process a reality and is it something that they recommended? Yes, the QAA process has confirmed our standing as a recognised academic institution. Together with very positive feedback from our recent accreditation, the QAA also recommended we apply for DAP and have offered us encouragement and advice. In addition, support for our application for DAP has been offered from the OU based on our working relationship with their organisation for more than twenty years.   Why is it so important for us to consider DAP now?  It is important for the School to seize this opportunity now because in 10-15 years we don’t know if the opportunity – including our current support from the QAA and the OU – will still be here. It wasn’t here 15 years ago when maybe we should have considered DAP but at that time there were rules and regulations in place that prevented it, for example with regard to how big the School needed be to be eligible to apply. I strongly believe we must act now, for if we don’t it is my opinion that 10-15 years down the line we will have a great deal of difficulty to survive as a small specialised  institution.
A lot of people were concerned that applying for Degree Awarding Powers would change the way the AA functions as a school and our unique approach as an educational institution. Is this the case?  Absolutely not. This is a misunderstanding. A great deal of the paperwork required for DAP is already in place as it was part of the necessary preparation for our QAA accreditation two years ago. This work for the QAA was never about changing the AA system but rather documenting and writing down our time-honoured processes and procedures so that it could be understood and recognised externally.   I think DAP will benefit all our students: it will make the AA’s position a lot clearer and it will also secure our independence on a long term basis. As far as I understand, the AA will make an application for DAP, for consideration by the Privy Council, based on the systems we currently have in place, there is no intention to adopt a conventional university system.   The whole point of the DAP application is to publicly legitimise the AA’s unique way of working, not to change it. The fact is that if we don’t do something now, we will be forced to change. By succeeding in our DAP application we will actually preserve the ethos of the AA for generations to come.   For more information: Degree Awarding Powers - AA School Consultation AA application for QAA Degree Awarding Powers – Draft Report   Image caption: AA Director Brett Steele explaining Degree Awarding Powers in his State of the Association address Credit: Valerie Bennett