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Geography in the UK
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Geography in the UK

The importance of geography in schools and higher education in the UK: information on how the subject is increasingly popular, influential, valued, and appealing to employers.

“So many of the world's current issues – at a global scale and locally - boil down to geography, and need the geographers of the future to help us understand them. Global warming as it affects countries and regions, food and energy security, the degradation of land and soils from over-use and misuse, the spread of disease, the causes and consequences of migration, and the impacts of economic change on places and communities.” Michael Palin (Former RGS-IBG President)

These are just some of the challenges facing the next generation, which geographers must help address. Geography is a highly valued subject in schools, in Higher Education in terms of both the teaching and the value of research being carried out, and in the workplace.

Geography in Schools

The study of geography stimulates an interest in and a sense of wonder about places, people and the environment. It helps young people make sense of a complex and dynamically changing world and how society, the economy and environment combine to bring about change. It explains where places are, how places and landscapes are formed, how people and their environment interact, and how a diverse range of economies, societies and environments are interconnected, and examines natural resources and their sustainable use.

 Increasingly popular at GCSE: large numbers study geography - over 225,000 pupils took an exam in geography GCSE in 2014 – placing it as the eighth most popular subject taken. More pupils are choosing to study the subject, with an increase of 1% in the numbers taking it in 2014 on the previous year (compared to an decrease of 4.2% in the total number of exams taken across all subjects). More than 16,800 pupils took an exam in the subject in Scotland (SCQF 3-5) 

• Increasingly popular at A and AS Level: it is also one of the most popular subjects with over 33,000 and more than 55,600 taking an exam at either A Level or AS Level respectively, and a further 5,900 taking  it to a similar level (SCQF 6 or 7) in Scotland. In 2014 the numbers taking A and AS level geography increased by 0.4% and 17% on 2013. The proportion of GCSE students then choosing to study at A Level has also risen over the last five years

Further signs of increasing popularity: latest estimates (from a survey undertaken for the Department for Education) show encouraging signs that in the latest year of pupils choosing their GCSE options 33% have opted to take geography at GCSE in England, up seven percentage points in a year and back to the level of 2002 entries. A report released by the Department for Education (DfE) showed geography to have the second highest level (after English and history) of pupils who progress from AS to A Level (76%). Further detailed analysis is available about the examination results of school geography students

Importance recognised by government: the government’s decision to include geography as one of the humanities within the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), aimed at getting more students to study core subjects at GCSE

• Beneficial: there are wide benefits from studying geography. According to OFSTED (2011) in those schools where geography was strong, the subject contributed to satisfying pupils’ curiosity about people and places and offered opportunities to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge. The enormous potential of geographical information systems (GIS) was used to give students insights into areas such as cartography, statistical analysis and natural resource management

• Important for further study and careers: the Russell Group of Universities, along with the Universities Minister David Willetts MP, recognise A Level geography as one of the key 'facilitating' subjects for entry to degree level study. Their document Informed Choices (PDF), provides further detail

Studying in Higher Education

”There has never been a better or more important time to study geography. The rate at which the world's environment and society are changing, combined with growing interest in issues such as climate change, migration, environmental degradation and social cohesion, means that geography is one of the most relevant courses students can choose to study.” Rita Gardner, RGS-IBG Director, 2011

Geography is flourishing at higher education level. Almost all UK higher education institutions, and all of the leading Universities, are undertaking both teaching and research in geography.

• Popular: geography is a very popular choice of subject studied at higher education. There are more than 80 universities in the UK offering over 1400 Geography related degrees and at any time there are almost 30,000 students studying geography full or part-time. Total acceptances to undergraduate geography degrees went up by 6.2% in 2013. Numbers studying geography at postgraduate level have also been increasing (a total of 2781 in 2015 according to latest figures).

• Good quality: as the annual student satisfaction survey reveals, students studying geography enjoy some of the highest levels of satisfaction with the quality of their course. Students admitted to geography degrees have amongst the highest tariff scores from exam results of all subjects studied at university

• Employable: geography graduates become some of the most sought after graduates by employers. They are less likely to be unemployed after their degree course than those studying other subjects and, as the Labour Force Survey (a sample from 2010) reports, are above average in what they go on to earn (74% of geography graduates earn a starting salary of more than £20,000 per year, above the overall average of 70%)

Geographical Research

• Human Geography number 1 in the world: A benchmarking report, from an international panel of leading experts which conducted the assessment, published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Society (RGS-IBG), has concluded that human geography research leads the world. The last research assessment (2008) for the subject in the UK also found that British geography is world-leading in many of its activities

Some of the leading geography departments in the world for research are based in the UK – 19 of the top 50 departments in the world according to the latest World University Rankings. These show how two of the world’s top five geography departments for academic citations in journals are based in the UK

• Has impact: geographical work has significant impact: it generates economic benefit, influences government policy and delivery, and improves our overall quality of life. Amongst the examples, geographers have developed new technologies which make our roads and transport safer; helped create more cost-efficient approaches to flood management; developed new techniques for the restoration of urban rivers aiding urban regeneration and improved local environmental quality; and shaped the Government’s ‘Regeneration Framework’ to target financial assistance on poorer areas. For more details and further examples, see the Society's own Making the Case for Geography policy case study series

• Influential: in recent years, academic geographers have taken lead roles in the a number of high level studies for Government, including the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) and Foresight (Government Office of Science) reports on Migration and Global Environmental Change and International Dimensions of Climate Change. They have also led reviews for Government of Health and Safety law, and fed into Parliamentary inquiries on the Importance of the Census, the National Planning Policy Framework, and high speed rail

Geography in the Workplace

Most geography graduates are numerate, literate, good team workers, can think analytically and critically, have cultural agility, are socially and environmentally aware, and wider experience as a result of fieldwork. Geographers have ability to integrate ideas effectively, problem solve, are highly computer literate and - as Michael Gove MP, the Secretary of State for Education, has recently stated to Parliament - are "creative"

• Employable: the nature of the discipline combined with the training geography students receive at university make graduate geographers highly employable, as a result of both these transferable skills and jobs where the specific knowledge and skills of the subject are utilised. Geography graduates are - according to the latest Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) survey data) less likely to be unemployed after their degree course than those studying almost any other subject. Further details of geographers' employability can be found in the Society's briefing Demand for Geography (PDF) and a range of reports by other businesses and organisations

• Value of geographers: one example is the Geographical Information System (GIS) industry, valued world-wide at £1 billion: almost all major companies now recognise that they have a requirement for geographical information, making geography graduates particularly valuable employees given their spatial analysis skills and discipline-specific knowledge

• Geographers in Government: geography is amongst the most common disciplines by way of Government Social Research Service (GSR) members’ backgrounds. The GSR exists to provide the UK government with objective, reliable, relevant and timely social research and support the development, implementation, review and evaluation of policy and delivery. Its members see themselves as contributing to policymaking at all stages of the policy cycle. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) recently published these findings from research it had commissioned to identify and evaluate the contribution to policymaking made by social scientists working within the GSR


GCSE data for England, Wales and Northern Ireland for 2014 exams. Figures for examinations in Scotland are for 2013. View notes on all data sources cited (PDF)

Last updated 11.03.15

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