Geography applications still strong, says society director

Royal Geographical Society head refutes claims of field's demise. Donna Bowater reports

September 4, 2008

Perceptions of a slump in the popularity of geography degrees are inaccurate, the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) heard this week.

RGS director Rita Gardner said that despite declining numbers of students sitting GCSE geography, the discipline was not in trouble. She said that a core pool of students continued to complete A levels in the subject and to enter higher education, keeping enrolment figures stable.

"University applications are holding up, which is really good news," she said. "Between 2002 and 2007, we're looking at more or less the same numbers - around 6,200. Early figures for this year ... are about 5,790 acceptances, so we're going to be heading for about the same level.

"What we're seeing is that there have been some reasonably substantial declines in GCSEs from 250,000 down to 205,000, and part of that has been a reduction in cohort. Against that, A levels have declined much less, and students who are really keen in geography are still there."

Dr Gardner said the subject had not been eroded by the increased popularity of interdisciplinary studies.

"Geography has always been fairly interdisciplinary because of the very nature of it spanning the physical sciences and the social sciences," she said.

Conference presenters acknowledged the importance of widening the application of geography when it comes to winning research funding.

James Evans of the University of Manchester and Phil Jones of the University of Birmingham told the conference that they "were fed up writing boring research proposals that failed to get funding" and had developed a more "experimental" approach.

Their project, which documented local knowledge about a Birmingham district before its regeneration, drew "inspiration from rescue archaeology, creating a 'rescue geography'," they said.

A U-TURN ON MAPS

A decline in the study of maps on university geography courses is set to be reversed thanks to a resurgence of public interest in cartography, experts have predicted.

Chris Perkins, senior lecturer in the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester, said technological changes, including the accessibility of online maps and the increasing use of sat-nav, mean that more people are using maps than ever before, and this will create an interest that feeds back into university courses.

"In the public imagination, maps are a central icon for the discipline. However, there aren't that many mainstream cartography courses taught any more," he told Times Higher Education after a debate at the Royal Geographical Society's conference.

The situation is set to change, Mr Perkins said, now that Google is the biggest map publisher in history and with the the development of collaborative cartography through sites such as OpenStreetMap.org and the increasing use of maps in modern art.

ORIGINAL FEATURES

Along with the cathedral on the other side of Palace Green, Durham Castle, unusually among university buildings, forms part of a World Heritage Site.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072, it was for centuries the main residence of the Bishops of Durham, although under Cromwell it was owned briefly by the Lord Mayor of London.

When the university was established in 1832, University College, or "Castle", became the first of its 17 colleges. The ruined keep was rebuilt to provide accommodation for students, where 60 are still housed today. Others live in the adjacent section around the Tudor chapel and dark wooden galleries built by Bishop Tunstal.

The oldest part of the castle is the undercroft, once used to store hay but recently refurbished as a student bar. The 15th-century kitchens still provide 1,000 meals a day, many of them served in the 13th-century Great Hall.

The Norman chapel, often used to stage small concerts and plays, was restored in 1953 in honour of students killed in the Second World War. Twelve survivors from that era attended this year's reunion.

This is the first article in a series exploring architectural treasures in UK higher education. Send suggestions to matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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