Event Report: NCSA Review

2 February 2014

The National Competency Standards in Architecture play an important role in regulating and underpinning the profession. A roundtable discussion in South Australia canvassed knowledge of and responses to the standards, in the lead-up to the AACA review.

The Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA) is undertaking a review of the National Competency Standards in Architecture (NCSA), which will reassess the structure, format, and general and detailed content of the competencies. The first stage of this review is a general consultation with stakeholders. The questions posed by the AACA in this initial phase are broad – ranging from awareness of the existence of the NCSA and their uses, their relevance to practice, registration and accrediting qualifications, to the clarity of content and format and omissions and/or redundancies.

The ACA is providing input to this stakeholder consultation stage, which is being coordinated by the NSW Branch. As part of this process, ACA – SA addressed the NCSA at their June Roundtable, with a particular emphasis on education and the role of the competencies. The event was attended by representatives of both SA schools of architecture and by practitioners, including new graduates and those involved in the Australian Institute of Architects Education Committee and with experience on the Registration Board. The main points arising from this discussion are outlined below.

The NCSA play an important part in the regulation of the profession. They are described as the “measure of knowledge, skill and experience required of a practitioner to enter the profession” and set out benchmark standards against which applications for registration are assessed. The competencies are also used to determine the equivalence of overseas architectural qualifications, and selected competencies form the basis for accrediting Australian schools of architecture. They also provide the framework for continuing professional development programs. There are 149 competencies organised into four basic areas – design, documentation, practice management and project management.

Despite this key role, the SA Roundtable revealed that many practitioners know little about the
competencies. Likewise, although they form a backdrop for the accreditation of architectural education – something to check against – the NCSA are just one of many factors that impact on the development of curricula and teaching programs.

The roundtable also noted that another system of assessment and accreditation impacts on the schools – the Threshold Learning Outcomes, which are part of the Federal Government’s TEQSA Higher Education Standards Frameworks. These are very short – one page – and offer the more synthetic approach to architectural knowledge. The academics voiced concern about working with two systems of accreditation and criteria, and made a clear recommendation that these be articulated – that accreditation under one system should be understood as adequate to cover accreditation over the other.

Further, George Zillante, of the University of Adelaide, argued that competencies are a “tick-box approach” and that this is not the best way to assess an education program, or to assist its development. He spoke in favour of a more collaborative, less adversarial, approach to accreditation, and commented that this is now occurring in other industries. There was substantial discussion around the relative role of universities and practice in educating future architects and a recognition that the NCSA are minimum standards only. This related to comments that universities do a lot more than prepare students for professional competence. Both academics and practitioners acknowledged that university is vital in teaching students to think, and that some aspects of practice are best learnt in a practice environment.

Nonetheless some of the practitioners present were concerned that in the current volatile economic climate, practices simply can’t afford to hire new graduates who can’t work productively straight away. There was also concern about low levels of knowledge of structures and materials, even among very bright new graduates, and the comment that although practices don’t expect new graduates to have a thorough understanding of the Building Code of Australia, they do expect them to know that it exists. John Schenk of UniSA noted that the competencies relating to documentation are not included in those that are used as part of the accreditation of architecture schools.

The competencies themselves were generally felt to be too long and detailed. Despite this it was felt that they don’t capture the full range of activities that architects might pursue – particular areas identified as missing included sustainability and heritage – and that they don’t really account for specialisation. It was also felt that the NCSA corresponds to a fairly traditional version of architectural practice and doesn’t relate to the many and different ways that one can practice architecture. This is particularly relevant in the current context, where the role of the architect continues to shift, change and diversify. Participants also noted the increasing complexity of the statutory environment that architects operate in – this is a much bigger part of practice than it once was.

In counterpoint to suggestions that the NCSA should be much shorter, Mads Gaardboe of UniSA speculated that maybe there are not enough competencies – perhaps this range of possible architectural activity should be more fully charted.

Positive comments related to the usefulness of the NCSA for young graduates as a checklist for assessing the mix and range of experience they need to gain to be registered. It was thought that this had the potential to ‘empower’ graduates in their discussions with employers as they seek to gain a balanced range of experiences in their early years in the profession.

John Held finished by commenting that although we know anecdotally that practice is changing, there is very little data about this. This is a fertile area for research, which leads to the question of how this might be facilitated and pursued, and what practice can contribute to research.


This item first appeared in ACA Communique September, 2013.