Housing is essential for everybody. People live in houses, they rent them, buy them, sell them, do them up, heat them and guard them as precious assets. But it is a rare privilege to be able to study housing. Yet that is what students have been doing at Stirling since 1980. And already some of the earliest students have retired from professional life at the end of a rewarding career!
The course was first established as a postgraduate full-time programme with a handful of 2-year bursaries from the Scottish Office (as it was then). This unusual development came on the back of a hugely critical report  to government about poor competence in council house management. It argued the case for professionalising the management of housing, then mostly owned by councils (56). The Scottish Office felt it had to act.
The University of Stirling was then a very new, almost embryonic, university, struggling to attract students following a controversial reception to a royal visit. It was hoped that new, professional programmes (including housing) would help Stirling stand out and attract students. Stirling didn’t exactly replicate courses already in place elsewhere in UK! In 1980 the only route to qualification for the professional body – the then Institute of Housing – was by self-directed distance learning and external examination (I write as a victim or rather a survivor.) No other university ‘taught housing’ so Stirling broke new ground creating a course and to do so, importing relevant expertise from different departments and from the local technical college.
Only later did postgrad and undergrad courses spring up at universities and colleges elsewhere across UK. Another course was established at Heriot Watt and the two universities collaborated well for many years, with each other and with the validating body (later known as the Chartered Institute of Housing – CIH). Eventually in 1990 this prompted them to share the foundation of a new part time programme for people working in housing in Edinburgh and the north and east of Scotland, since a course at the University of Glasgow already covered metropolitan west of Scotland.
By this time the right to buy, introduced in 1980, had changed the landscape of Scottish housing and many hundreds of thousands of homes built by local government were now owned by their occupiers. Councils were fast becoming minority landlords and expected to focus as much on enabling, as on providing and managing competently. Housing associations were more politically popular and targeted for new funding, while investment in council housing renewal and repair was weak, and withdrawal of financial support to council housing made for ever higher rents. With increasing unemployment in post-industrial Scotland, more tenants came to depend on state support to pay the rent, creating a spiral of dissatisfaction and decline.
The full time and part time courses continually attracted people who could see these problems and wanted to be part of solutions. The courses attracted women and men, young and mature, with degrees – in microbiology, sociology, zoology, politics, history – to name a few, as well as people who had never been to university, as part of widening access for those with worthwhile professional experience. Disabled students were welcomed and many graduated and went on to work in the sector, as did students from BAME communities and former refugees.
The full time students undertook in-depth, assessed work experience placements with a variety of housing employers, while the part time students got the chance for a day each week to step back from the rough and tumble of daily housing work. All students were expected to reflect on their work, its contribution to social life, how services and systems might improve and so on.
Over time the two student groups increasingly learned together cross fertilising their ideas about theory and practice, with the occasional creative tension to keep things lively! There was often a field trip to pastures new, usually in cities in the British Isles and occasionally further afield to mainland Europe. Wherever the field trips were, it was a chance for students and staff to bond and grow together in understanding how housing systems worked.
New technology started to affect life everywhere. Automated rent accounting systems started to come into housing practice from the late 70s and a decade later began to impact on the organisation of repairs. In universities, academics typically relied on acetate slides hand drawn in coloured inks, or had secretarial staff create type-written acetates and hand-outs for distribution in lecture and seminar rooms. During the 90s, academic staff started each to have their own pc on their desk. When the new, exciting internet came, staff attended training courses in how to construct ‘online’ searches. And the more training we had, and the more relevant material was available online, the more we could see possibilities for utilising technology differently – to teach, reaching students for whom daily or weekly attendance was impossible. Bizarrely the potential of online programme was not commonly recognised in 2001: by then universities generally valued and invested in research much more than teaching. But a chance encounter with a key contact at the sector skills body – Assetskills, led to a successful partnership application to the European Social Fund in 2003 to support investment in additional staff time. This proved exceptionally valuable both technically and pedagogically. Academic staff were challenged to prepare content more imaginatively, informed by new considerations about how the material would look online and how it would be used by students. The technical support team uploaded materials into agreed structures and helped with troubleshooting during the regular interactive sessions with students. This all helped to build confidence.
From 2005 onwards, new students faced blended learning, which is now commonplace post-pandemic, with periodic face to face teaching requiring attendance in person, complementing regular interactive work over eight separate modules with a variety of assessment methods. The students who trailblazed the blended programme were pleasantly surprised with how much they enjoyed the programme! And how well they had learned. For the teaching team, blended learning means much more transparency about each module and assessment, so a more creative and integrative team experience. External examiners testify to the quality of the programme and flexibility it offers, with the continuation of both an academic and practice examiner for the programme. Stirling now attracts students from Scotland and beyond, even as far and wide as Jamaica.
The quality of the Stirling student experience has always been deemed UK leading. This means that new graduates can access better work opportunities even with minimal experience. Those with experience and the qualification embark on better career progression than without the Stirling course.
The world of 2021 is very different to 1980 – socially, economically, politically, technologically, environmentally, all relevant to housing. The housing programme has impacted significantly on professional practice, not least in Scotland, rising to the professional improvement challenge of 1977.
A course like housing studies cannot stand still in what it teaches or how. In spite of being built on firm foundations, Stirling certainly moves with the times.
 Training for Tomorrow (1977) SDD (Scottish Development Department), Edinburgh.
About the author
Mary owes her start in housing to a graduate training opportunity on the back of the 1977 report. She taught on the Stirling housing programme 1990 – 2010 having previously worked as a practitioner, manager and consultant, with committee and board experience. She then spent a further seven years as Chief Executive of the SFHA. And latterly, in a voluntary capacity, Mary has been supporting Housing Europe to help develop systems of affordable housing in eastern Europe.
About the course
The Housing Studies course at the University of Stirling is still going strong, with currently over 100 postgraduate Diploma/MSc Housing Students. For more information visit:
If you would like to know more about the course you can join us at our online taster session on 19th May 2021, all are welcome: