Is Australia facing a looming shortfall of landscape architects?
With local graduate numbers in steep decline and a surge in demand for skilled landscape architects, it might be time for Australians to start worrying for the future of their parks and public spaces.
Landscape architect Martin Reeves is emphatic in his beliefs about the health of his chosen profession: “The industry has never been bigger – it’s never been busier, wages have never been higher, and it’s never been more diverse.”
Reeves is speaking at a roundtable convened by RMIT University, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) and the University of Melbourne at the latter’s Melbourne School of Design to discuss “The Future Practitioner”. The room is filled with some 20-odd people from across academia and practice, many of whom seem to share his bullish outlook. Today, though, that widespread optimism is tempered by a shared concern and the primary reason for this unusual gathering: a burgeoning shortage of qualified landscape architecture graduates in the local labour market.
As another practitioner present puts it: “There’s so much work around at the moment, but the big challenge for me is finding good quality grads and staff.”
Part of the problem for prospective employees, though, isn’t just the surging demand for skilled graduates, it’s also a steep fall in their supply. While landscape architecture programs across the country might be well subscribed, they are turning out fewer and fewer graduates who can actually work in Australia, as international students come to form more and more of their student cohorts.
As several of the speakers at the roundtable have it, international students now dramatically outnumber local students in landscape architecture programs around Australia. With the boom in Australia’s education export industry reaching a new peak, staff from some of the universities present believe international students now make up anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of their cohorts, while local student numbers are falling.
This impression is largely borne out by data gathered by AILA on enrolments in 2017 across five of the eight university landscape architecture programs that lead to accreditation as a registered landscape architect. According to this data, the average ratio of local students to international is 23 to 77 percent, meaning local students are outnumbered nearly three-to-one by internationals. By contrast, AILA’s 2015 survey of enrolments saw a roughly equal split between local and international students.
As those present from landscape architecture practices describe, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for businesses, but for the fact that most of these students will end up back in their home countries due to the difficulties they face in securing working visas.
There is also a lurking existential threat for the landscape architecture programs themselves. Some have argued education exports are unusually vulnerable to the shifting fortunes of global economic and political conditions, most especially with respect to Australia’s relationship to China, given some 30 percent of Australia’s international student numbers comprise of students from the country. If international student numbers were to dry up, landscape architecture programs around the country could conceivably lose the majority of their students, making them untenable.
This isn’t just a problem for landscape architecture practices and academics, however. As Bronwen Hamilton from the Office of the Victorian Government Architect put it to the roundtable, Australia’s cities are getting denser and as a result its streets, parks and other public places are subject to ever greater demand. With population pressure mounting on our public spaces, Hamilton says, skilled landscape architects are more important than ever for the health and amenity of Australian cities.
Addressing the shortfall, though, won’t be easy, as it could indicate a widespread lack of local demand – that, put simply, Australian students don’t want to become landscape architects.
Jackson Hill, one of a handful of students present at the meeting, says his contemporaries are more attracted to STEM degrees than landscape architecture degrees, because of the perception that on completion they provide a more secure and greater source of income.
“It’s been said for years that a large percentage of jobs won’t exist in the new future, and will be replaced with jobs we don’t even know will exist,” says Hill. “We’re in that right now, and school leavers don’t want to be heading into a degree that is tunnel visioned on setting you up for a single job, even one as multifaceted and varied as a landscape architect. It needs to be sold in terms of the kinds of thinking it will teach you, rather than the exact job it will line you up for.”
Communicating the benefits of landscape architecture, not only to potential students, but to the community at large would certainly seem to be one way of staunching the loss of young talent to other disciplines. Many at the meeting were quick to recognise the profession in Australia could do better here. As the director of a high profile, multinational design firm observes: “We need to re-establish landscape architecture as a value proposition in tackling contemporary conditions.”
[This article was updated 10.20AM 31 July 2018 to include data related to AILA’s survey of 2015 enrolments.]