In uncertain economic times and with student fees climbing, it makes sense to choose a course with good job prospects. The well-rounded, hands-on approach offered by undergraduate planning courses ensures that graduates are in demand.
"Over recent years job prospects have been very good. Our graduates gain employment rapidly after completing their studies and in several cases before completion," says Richard Kingston, admissions tutor and director of undergraduate studies in planning and landscape at the University of Manchester.
About 20 universities across the British Isles run courses accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute, leading to full professional membership after two years or so in employment. Over four years, students take on board a huge variety of academic, practical and vocational training as they build up the wide-ranging skills base they need to meet the demands of planning practice.
"Planning opens up all sorts of different career opportunities, so people with a range of qualities can thrive across a variety of different aspects of planning work," says Cardiff University lecturer Neil Harris. "From the flamboyant and creative types to the quiet, reflective and studious, there's an aspect of planning work in which everybody can develop and thrive."
One crucial skill for planners is the ability to convey ideas by all possible means - oral, written and graphic. "You have to communicate with clients, applicants, local communities, private sector partners and local authority staff. You must also listen to other people and tackle and resolve their problems," says University of Dundee head of town and regional planning Barbara Illsley.
Planning students have fewer opportunities than most to fall asleep at the back of a lecture theatre. Much of their time is spent on practical projects that are "real and live and the kind of thing that planners are doing in the real world", says Illsley. "With the huge improvements in access to information via the internet, second-year students can practise processing a planning proposal at the same time as it is done by the council and follow its progress."
Manchester students enjoy plenty of opportunities to see places. "The fun bits are practical sessions and group work, from a project on the Merseyside coast in the first year investigating environmental impacts and management options through to a field trip to Amsterdam to look at urban and regional issues in a different country. We'll be visiting Berlin in the coming years," says Kingston.
Links with the workplace are also part of the educational experience. Undergraduate programmes build in opportunities for work experience, ranging from a whole year of employment during a sandwich course to shorter placements.
Students at Dundee work with Dundee City Council on a practical project. Last year they looked at a strategy for a business development along a major route. "The project is marked for academic purposes by the university, but the council holds an awards evening where the director of planning and the planning convener award prizes for the best projects. It certainly provides an incentive for the students," says Illsley.
USEFUL A LEVELS
Art and graphic design: Communicating and assessing ideas graphically.
Business studies: Insights into commercial practice, management and viability.
Economics: Forces that shape growth or decline across districts, cities and regions.
English: Clear analysis and presentation of ideas, proposals, strategies and arguments.
Environmental studies: Interactions between the natural world and human activities.
Geography: Human and physical factors that shape societies, communities and places.
History: Long-term processes of social and economic change and heritage issues.
Maths: The implications of current trends and projecting change into the future.
Psychology and sociology: Interactions between individuals and communities.
Politics: Decision-making structures and the factors that influence them.
Technology: Factors behind design, form and function of buildings and services.
Catherine Kitts - Master in Planning and Transport, Sheffield Hallam University
Third-year student Catherine Kitts is well on the way to realising her ambition to become a transport planner. "I love the way transport links everything and makes such a difference to people's lives," she says. Catherine started on a geography and planning degree, discovered that planning is about changing places for the better and switched to the four-year masters at the end of the first year. She enjoys the mix of projects. "It's great working with other people to tackle problems and bounce ideas off each other. You build strong bonds in the process," she says. Several assignments have been directly relevant to the job market and the group has just started on projects that will conduct research for Sheffield City Council.
Adam Provoost - BSc in City and Regional Planning and MSc in Housing, Cardiff University
Witnessing the dramatic regeneration of Cardiff Bay helped persuade Adam Provoost to study planning. After achieving A levels in geography, economics and computing, he joined Cardiff's undergraduate course and completed the BSc element this summer. He spent a year on placement at Bridgend County Borough Council working on sustainability and planning policy modules and gaining experience in mapping packages. He will be specialising in housing as he enters his final masters year. Adam is keen to establish a grounding in local government planning policy or development control and then wants to explore the possibility of finding work in Canada. A first-class honours in the undergraduate degree gave him "a huge sense of achievement", he says.
Karen van den Berg - Master of Planning, University of the West of England
"Planning is such a broad topic and there are so many exciting areas to choose from," says Bristol-based undergraduate Karen van den Berg. "The course is so diverse and every module so different that I'm constantly learning about things I've never even considered." Karen's favourite school subject was geography and this helped her realise that planning is going to play a key role in the way the world develops in the future. A field trip to Rotterdam last year was one highlight of the course. "The students are great and we all have a close bond, which really helps when carrying out tasks," she says. Karen has not yet decided what to do after university, but she says that community regeneration and developing areas overseas are real possibilities.