International accreditation of planning degrees

Post-graduate planning students at University of Cape Town discussing their views on the course. Photo by Dr.Brian O'Callaghan.

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.

Challenges

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.

  • Taibat

    Does a graduate of an RTPI accredited programme in Africa qualify to practice in the UK. If benchmarks are set and even British universities can’t meet up with most, what then do we learn or take away from the process?

    • Cliff Hague

      There is no legal restriction (beyond immigration and work permits) on who can call themselves a “town planner” in the UK or take up employment doing planning. In that sense anyone in Africa – or anywhere else – can “qualify to practice in the UK. However, to call yourself a “Chartered Town Planner” you have to be a full member of the RTPI. There are several routes to RTPI membership, and these are set out on the RTPI’s website. Most RTPI members complete an RTPI accredited planning degree and then pass the Assessment of Professional Competence after gaining 2 years post-qualifiaction planning experience. However, there are also ways in which somebody who does not hold an degree from an RTPI-accredited course can join the RTPI. In particular, there is an “Associate Member” class, and there is a route from which an Associate Member can progress to Full Member Once you become a member you have to commit to life-long learning to keep your expertise up to date. This involves keeping and implementing a professional development plan each year.

      So a graduate from an RTPI accredited plannng course in Africa (or anywhere elese) would be in the same position in respect of RTPI membership as a graduate of a UK-based RTPI-accredited course. However being MRTPI does not guarantee anybody a job in planning in the UK: employers decide who they want to hire.

      I don’t quite follow your second question. RTPI accredits programmes that a) seek accreditation, and b) meet the RTPI’s requirements as set out in the education policy documents. These are not strictly “benchmarks”, in the sense that the RTPI is not using them to compare one course with another. Rather they are criteria which any course is required to meet if it is to be given accreditation. They are qualitative rather than quantitative. There are many UK courses that are accredited and so have met (and continue to meet) these criteria.

  • Chintalarahul

    sir can u please suggest me how to gain a RTPI membership as i have a post graduation degree in infrastructure planning from INDIA. so that i can apply for jobs in UK

    • cliffhague

      You do not need an RTPI qualification to work as a planner here in the UK, though many employers do prefer to have people with that qualification. Also you do not have to have an RTPI accredited degree to get RTPI membership. The RTPI has a route to membership for people who have other plannng qualifications and experience. You need to look at the RTPI website – http://www.rtpi.org.uk – and then get in contact with them. However, I should also point out that outside the south east of England it is a tough job market here at present for those seeking work as planners. Best of luck.

  • Cliff Hague

    You do not need an RTPI qualification to work as a planner here in the UK, though many employers do prefer to have people with that qualification. Also you do not have to have an RTPI accredited degree to get RTPI membership. The RTPI has a route to membership for people who have other plannng qualifications and experience. You need to look at the RTPI website – http://www.rtpi.org.uk – and then get in contact with them. However, I should also point out that outside the south east of England it is a tough job market here at present for those seeking work as planners. Best of luck.