International accreditation of planning degrees
What are the implications of moves to offer international accreditation of planning education, particularly on North-South basis globally? The RTPI has fully accredited a planning programme in Africa for the first time. I chaired the Accreditation Board that visited University of Cape Town last week. On 30 October the Commonwealth Association of Planners will hold a meeting in London that will consider how to build capacity and institutions for planning across the Commonwealth. The following day I will be part of a video-link panel to the annual conference of the American Collegiate Schools of Planning in Cincinnati, where the theme of the panel will be international accreditation.
RTPI accreditation of the Cape Town course
The Master of City and Regional Planning (MCRP) at University of Cape Town (UCT) is a long established programme in arguably Africa’s leading university. The RTPI gave the programme provisional accreditation in 2010. We went back this month to review this two-year programme. Over a period of two full days the three of us who made up the Accreditation Board looked at an extensive display of student work, and spoke with the staff who are teaching the MURP, senior university staff, students, recent graduates and practising planners who are employers of the graduates.
Throughout our assessment criteria were those set out in the RTPI’s educational policy statement. We had to be sure that the programme was part of what the RTPI calls “an effective planning school”, and that its graduates can demonstrably be shown to have attained the learning outcomes specified both in terms of spatial planning and at a specialist level.
In the course of our scrutiny it became very clear that the MCRP had a robust philosophy that infused the delivery of the teaching and was shared by students, staff and employers. The course has a unique focus on the ethical and integrated design of space at three spatial scales (local, urban and metropolitan) in the context of the Global South. The first studio project takes the fledgling planners into an informal settlement to do local design work, in an innovative partnership with Slum Dwellers International.
The course looks and feels significantly different to the one-year Masters programmes that RPTI has accredited in the UK. This is a two-year full-time programme, with just a couple of students taking a three-year part-time version. The students spend 3 mornings a week being taught in the studio, and a building upgrade will provide each of the target intake of 20 students a year with their own dedicated studio space. The student-staff ratio and the studio base are a teaching and learning model that could not be sustained in UK planning schools today.
International accreditation and national registration bodies
The South African Council for Planners (SACPLAN) is the statutory body appointed under the Planning Profession Act (2002) to regulate the planning profession. Thus SACPLAN itself also accredits planning schools in South Africa, where there are about a dozen planning schools in all. In addition, higher education there is also governed by national legislation and provisions that in future Masters courses like that at UCT will offer an exit degree at Honours level after successful completion of the first year.
SACPLAN and RTPI had a cordial meeting in Johannesburg during our visit, and SACPLAN’s Chief Executive was an observer on our Board at UCT. RTPI went to UCT because it was invited there by the University. RTPI was reactive not proactive. Its policy remains that it will judge any application for accreditation on the merits of the programme. While some would prefer that RTPI operates a quota, or only accredits in the UK, neither of these propositions is really practical. If the institute were to close the door to previously non-accredited programmes during a downturn in recruitment (such as is the situation now in the UK) it might be turning away new programmes that are better than some currently accredited ones. Furthermore, the RTPI has long accredited programmes in Hong Kong and Dublin.
There are also many countries where no registration board for planners currently exists, though there may be boards for professions such as architects or engineers. In such situations planning schools and planning graduates are in a weak position, and planning work is often done by persons with no education or qualification in planning. The credibility that international accreditation could confer to planning programmes in such circumstances is considerable.
I have recently completed a piece of work for the Commonwealth Association of Planners that was commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat. This looked at access to planning education. Across the Commonwealth as a whole there are about 30-35,000 professional urban and regional planners. However, most of these professionals are in the UK, Canada and Australia. The countries facing the most urgent challenges in terms of urban growth, climate change and the urbanisation of poverty have few planners, few (if any) planning schools and at best small, fragile associations of planners.
Then there are Nigeria and India, large countries, with a significant number of planning schools but where there are some questions about how well young planners are prepared to engage with the kind of informal systems of housing, retailing and transport that are so central to the livelihoods of the urban poor in the Global South.
Similarly, it is important that where there are international accreditation initiatives these do not become a neo-colonial imposition, transferring the mindsets of the Global North to the Global South. Initiatives such as the formation of the Association of African Planning Schools (in which UCT has played a leading role) are a welcome step forward. However, this has been sustained by project funding from the Rockefeller Foundation that will end next year.
Given that accreditation is an expensive exercise, it is worth looking at affordable, even self-help ways to help enhance the quality of planning education provision in rapidly urbanising countries. A self-assessment system of international benchmarking of planning programmes could help.
However, many Small Island Developing States will never be able to support their own professional level programmes and mid-career updates in planning. E-learning is the obvious answer. UN-Habitat recently launched its Habitat Partners University Programme that seeks to be a catalyst to promote partnerships and education-practice links.