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Geography in research and higher education

Geography is flourishing in higher education. Over 80 UK universities undertake teaching and research in geography, with thousands of students each year choosing to study this vibrant and dynamic subject. Geography is the bridge between the natural and social sciences, providing its own specialist knowledge and skills, together with the valuable interdisciplinary approaches needed to address pressing global issues from climate change, green recovery and geopolitical challenges to understanding pandemics and their effects to environmental change, migration and inequalitites.


Addressing the challenges of our time

Students choose geography to help make a positive difference in the world. At any one time there are almost 30,000 students studying geography full or part-time in the UK. The number of applicants for geography degrees in 2020-21 was higher than in the previous year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Numbers studying geography at postgraduate level have also been increasing, with around a fifth of geography graduates choosing to develop specialist skills and knowledge at a more advanced level.

The rise in undergraduate geographers mirrors a significant rise in GCSE geography entries in England across the last decade. More information about progression from schools to university, accounting for the backgrounds of students and institutions in which they have studied, is provided by research commissioned by the Society on the Geography of geography, which continues to promote evidence-based interventions to address inequalities and share good practice.

Experiencing high-quality learning

Geography students enjoy some of the highest levels of satisfaction with the quality of their course. The 2020 National Student Survey, completed by final year students in every UK university, revealed that 88% of the respondents studying geography were satisfied with the overall quality of their course - higher than the 83% nationwide average for all respondents. The survey also indicates that geography students are highly satisfied with specific elements of their university experience, including the organisation and smooth running of their course, and the ability to access specialist resources and facilities. In all of the survey’s categories, geography, earth and environmental studies students responded more positively than the national average across all subjects.

The QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for Geography provides the blueprint for what can be expected of a graduate in the subject. The statement provides a valuable guide to designing and reviewing of programmes of study in geography and related subjects, for students to find out what is involved in the study of geography, and for employers to find out what they can expect from a geography graduate. The statement also plays a key role in the Society’s Programme Accreditation scheme, which recognises good practice in geography learning and teaching at both undergraduate and master’s level.


Building skills for the future

From education to engineering and marketing to meteorology; graduate geographers enter an incredibly broad range of careers. The annual report, What do graduates do?, published by Prospects Luminate, highlights the diversity of roles and sectors in which graduate geographers can be found. Its most recent edition underlines the vital place of geographers in the graduate job market, stating that ‘companies in the UK increasingly need ethical hackers, atmospheric scientists, virtual world creators, artificial intelligence trainers, sustainability experts, climatologists and many more’, stressing to the ‘vital role to play’ for graduates from physical and geographical sciences.

It also indicates that a considerable proportion of physical and geographical science graduates ‘embraced opportunities in business and finance (nearly 18%) where the salaries are highly competitive and organisations are very proactive in trying to recruit technical graduates with a flair for maths and highly developed analytical skills’. The high demand for geographical skills translates to good employment outcomes for graduates, with a much higher percentage of geographers entering professional-level jobs after graduation (74.8%), relative to the average for the social sciences (60.8%).

Geographers are especially crucial to understanding the geospatial and socio-economic characteristics of markets, as well as for analysing and managing risk and long-term strategies. Based on eight detailed case studies of leading businesses across a range of sectors, including engineering, retail and landscape architecture, a report by the Academy of Social Sciences highlights the use of a range of skills within the social sciences, including geography. The critical role of geography is a recurring theme, particularly in providing the necessary context for work in these areas, in addition to helping companies make ‘achievable social and environmental commitments’.


Pioneering world-leading research

Geographical research reaches the crux of the issues facing the world today. Five of the top 10 geography departments in the world for research are based in the UK, according to the latest world University Rankings. The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) also demonstrate the world-leading quality of geographical research conducted in UK universities, as well as highlighting the wide-ranging and significant benefits that UK geographical research brings to the economy and society. The research of academic staff from UK universities was peer-reviewed by a series of panels comprising UK and international experts, and external users of research. The panels judged 71 per cent of the submitted geography work to be ‘world-leading’ (4*) or ‘internationally excellent’ (3*). The quality of research was found to have improved significantly since the last exercise in 2008, confirming other independent evidence of the UK’s world-leading position and enhanced performance. The next REF will take place in 2021.

In addition to a range of high-quality scholarly publications and highly popular grants programme, the Society has 32 Research and Working Groups, which bring together active researchers and those with a professional interest in a particular aspect of geography and related disciplines; supporting high quality research and positively impacting education, public policy and research, government and enterprise.

There is also ample evidence that this research has impact – on society, the environment, and economy. Evidence of this is provided by REF21 case studies and is documented in the Society's case studies. The Society’s research blog, Geography Directions, features regular updates on the contemporary relevance of UK geographical research.


Human geography

Human geography in the UK is number 1 in the world: an international benchmarking report concluded that human geography research is world-leading. Conclusions from the report were that human geography in the UK is:

  • An empirically and conceptually innovative, diverse, vibrant discipline that in many areas sets the intellectual agenda.

  • Radically interdisciplinary and with the spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences has become an exporter of ideas and faculty to other disciplines.

The report also concluded that:

  • The UK publishes more than its share of major disciplinary journals; bibliometric indicators reveal international primacy both in volume and citation impact; and a large number of the seminal publications (books as well as articles) continue to have a UK origin.

  • There is confidence research in human geography had substantial impact on policy and practice and would successfully meet the challenges of the current impact agenda.

Read the report


Physical geography

In 2017, the Society published a report on the current state of UK physical geography. It uses documented evidence, most of which is in the public domain, to describe the nature and demand for physical geography in schools, the shape and size of physical geography in universities, the achievements and global influence of UK physical geography and its academic community, and the aspirations and skillsets offered by the next generation of physical geographers.

The independent review of this report by a panel of eminent overseas experts confirms that “it is beyond doubt that UK physical geography is a leading force worldwide as evidenced by all the metrics discussed in this report”. Nonetheless, there are challenges, detailed within the report, that need to be addressed to enhance the scientific, academic and public presence, inclusivity, resourcing, autonomy, and global reputation of UK physical geography. 

The Society is leading a working group, which is representative of constituent bodies within UK physical geography, to address the challenges identified in the report and the independent review.

Read the report