A new academic year is impending. According to the media, university places in most subjects are subject to cut-throat competition - except one. Admissions service UCAS's records reveal that the category into which planning falls has seen a 17.4 per cent fall in applications.
Indeed, apart from polymers and textiles, planning registered the largest drop of any subject. Yet it's only three years since planning departments were devising ingenious ways to recruit planners in the face of a severe skills shortage caused by the decline in the number of graduates in the subject in the 1990s.
Is the profession headed back there if recovery comes to the development industry in the next few years?
The decline in applications does not, of course, mean that places will be empty on many planning degree courses this autumn. There were 2,976 applications in the UCAS's urban, rural and regional planning category this year.
That's still three for each available place. However, the decline suggests that the old problem of students shunning the subject at a time of spending cuts and a downturn in development may have recurred.
One northern university admits that lack of demand means it is close to dropping its landscape architecture and planning dual degree course from 2011. It has seen about 2.5 applicants for each place on its planning courses, a reduction of some 30 per cent on the previous two years. "Gradates from earlier years are taking longer to find jobs and are having to accept compromises in terms of location and starting grade. Some have considered changes in career direction," its admissions tutor confides.
He fears that a future skill shortage is a definite possibility.
"We are already seeing a downturn in the numbers of applicants and visitors at open days are moderately worried about the potential impact of public cuts. But they are also pragmatically optimistic. They recognise that more than half of our graduates go into private sector jobs and that in three or four years' time there's a good chance the economy will be on the road to recovery. Property will be at the forefront of that."
One route by which planning has mitigated its skill shortage in recent years has been through one-year diplomas for graduates with a degree in another subject. The DCLG has been offering bursaries for these for the past three years. Last year 176 were awarded and they remain available for 2010-11. Whether they will survive the October spending review is a matter for conjecture.
The other side of the downturn is the position of this year's graduates entering working life in a cold climate for the planning profession.
How will they fare? "I know some graduates have struggled to find work in local planning authorities and are worried about fulfilling the terms of the contract for the DCLG bursary to work for at least two of their first five years in the public sector," says Oxford Brookes University director of postgraduate taught programmes and professional development Joe Weston.
By contrast, all of Oxford Brookes' full-time postgraduate students from 2004 until 2008 secured planning jobs before their courses ended. "Responses to the annual exit survey indicated that five of the ten bursary students have found planning or related employment, with four of them working in the public sector," Weston reports.
The university's RTPI-accredited MSc in spatial planning has seen a marked drop in applications for the part-time route, he adds. "In the past, the majority of applicants have been from local planning authorities. Applications for full-time places seem to have held up much better and we have also seen an increase from overseas students." Despite this mixed picture, he believes that changing employment prospects could see more graduates enter the private sector in the longer term.
"Public spending cuts are clearly a concern, but it is difficult to speculate until we see what ministers intend for planning," he maintains. "There has been some speculation that localism may result in a need for more planners. Graduates are still being sought, though to a lesser degree, by the private sector and this could be more significant for employment than the public sector if the government decides to push planning in that direction."
University application demand rises
University College London's (UCL's) RTPI-accredited degree course in urban planning, design and management, which previously required applicants to have three B grade passes at A-level, will be increased to ABB for 2011 entrants.
UCL's Bartlett School of Planning has noticed little sign of any change in the historic pattern of a three-way split among graduates between careers in the public sector, private consultancy and other fields such as retail and international development.
"We have received around 190 applications for the BSc programmes this year, which compares with 155 in 2009 and 178 in 2008," explains admissions tutor Susan Moore. "I have noticed an upward trend in the number of applications from mature candidates. Many have been employed in the planning, housing, regeneration and design fields for several years and are looking to retrain or enhance their current level of qualifications," she adds.
Moore reveals that there have been fewer applications from UK and EU students this year, although more from overseas. "I don't know the extent to which media reports about public spending cuts are deterring new applicants, but those that apply and come for open days are curious about career trajectories," she finds. "Most seem to see this as a professional area with a relatively constant need and see the cross-cutting skills development that our programme offers as an attractive career route."
University of Reading planning admissions tutor Cathy Hughes reports that there is still substantial demand for the one-year postgraduate planning qualification course but less for pure planning degrees.
"Applications are certainly lower than in the past couple of years but there is still a healthy intake on the one-year conversion course," she says. "It suggests that people do not want to commit to planning at the outset so they choose other subjects for their degree."
University of the West of England (UWE) admissions manager Julian Spicer says: "A lot of courses that we offer are dual ones, for example accredited by the RTPI and RIBA. Demand for some of those are very strong but pure planning is rather weak. Application levels have been disappointing."
One problem, he feels, is that undergraduate planning courses take four years to complete, offering only a marginal overall time saving on the option of taking another degree and then a planning diploma.
"Students may prefer not to commit to a specialism at the outset of their studies," Spicer remarks. "It's difficult to predict, but demand is cyclical. There is also a problem that for a long time planning has not caught the eye of school leavers. I fear we will see a shortage of planners again as the construction industry picks up."
Janet Askew, head of UWE's planning school and chair of the RTPI development management committee, points out that her department will have almost 1,000 students on courses recognised by the institute this year. It would be a mistake to take headline figures for applications from school leavers as a sign of crisis, she advises. "Mature students would not normally go through UCAS and there are people who use day release, distance learning and different modes of study to meet their needs."
Askew thinks that local authorities still have capacity gaps in planning. "So there are quite good employment prospects for graduates. Ours do get jobs, but it is a struggle as for anyone else because of what is happening at the moment in both the public and private sectors. When things come back there will be more planning to be done and planners will be required to help communities with localism."
Planning Officers Society president Stephen Tapper says the profession could face a double whammy from a decline in school leaver applications at the same time as funding for postgraduate conversion courses disappears.
"We need to look very seriously at this with the RTPI," he says. "If it's a structural problem to do with funding we need to tackle that. If it's lack of interest, then one response is to attract other people into the profession by showing that our work is really interesting."
Tapper's authority, the London Borough of Enfield, has taken seven people through a graduate training scheme in planning. "They came from human resources, public relations and other professions and were all looking to do something more interesting." Tapper says people with degrees in subjects such as environmental science would like to use that knowledge in the planning field. "The range of things planners work on, such as regeneration and place-making, means there is a whole choice of interesting things to do," he argues.
"Part of the problem is that people think all that planners do is process paperwork. Of course there is some of that, but we need to get the message out to schools and colleges that planners work on really important things. Hopefully the cuts will be a passing phase and localism will mean that communities want support from planners."