Where greens can go global

September 12, 1997

Whether it is watching river flows, cash flows or linguistic flow, the three subjects below are attracting students

GEOGRAPHY straddles the boundaries between science, social science and arts. It is classified in terms of student admissions as either a physical science, for example, investigating topography, climate, soil and vegetation, or a social study, focusing on population movement, settlements and the effect people have on their natural surroundings.

This has led to a funding curiosity with different rates for geography teaching, even though it is common for students to be able to change their specialism once on the course. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, for example, provides Pounds 5,356 for a "science" physical geography student and Pounds 2,986 for a "social science" human geography student.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, reforming its funding bands, provoked outrage last session when it attempted to reclassify geography in the lowest funded "classroom" category. The discipline has a powerful lobbying machine in the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers, and its intervention alongside institutional interests led to HEFCE putting geography in the higher paid "part-laboratory" category.

Nigel Thrift, professor of geography at Bristol University, where the discipline is taught in both the science and social science faculties, is concerned the decision will lead to a loss of funds.

"We regard it with some concern in that, in this department, we teach geography very much as a science, no different in scientific ambit from earth sciences and environmental sciences. We have just set up a four-year MSc degree to reflect that," he said.

Fieldwork, laboratory-based and computer-based work, are essential and some geographers argue it should more properly be classed as a "laboratory" subject.

Both research and teaching have undoubtedly been transformed by new techniques and technologies, such as automated cartography, high-resolution satellite imagery and more accurate dating methods. Geography is increasingly relevant in terms of solving environmental and socio-economic problems. Physical geographers can investigate global warming and sea level change, environmental degradation and sustainability.

Meanwhile human geographers have been forging links with disciplines such as sociology, psychology, political economy and philosophy, looking at behaviour patterns, the effects of power structures and political control, as well as factors related to ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation.

Bristol won a 5-star rating along with Durham, Cambridge and Edinburgh universities and University College London in the last research assessment exercise, and the United Kingdom is seen as strong in hydrology, glaciology, remote sensing, and cultural, economic and social geography.

Geography's breadth ensures students get a broad range of skills making them adaptable to the job market. Bristol's figures for 1996 show 63 per cent of graduates going into work, around 30 per cent going on to further study, and 6 per cent deciding to travel.

"They go into accountancy, management consultancy, computing, retailing and transport. On the whole they're getting pretty good jobs," Professor Thrift says.

More geography graduates go on to further study than graduates as a whole. Lorna Philip, who has just completed a PhD at Glasgow University, has now won a temporary research assistant post in Aberdeen University. The RGS-IBG lobby offers invaluable support to postgraduates through its specialist study groups, she says.

"The annual conference is very useful, and is where most younger researchers give their first paper. It's designed to give people exposure at the start of their career."

Dr Philip opted to study geography because she had done well in it at school, and familiarity with the subject is undoubtedly a key reason for buoyant applications, alongside environmental awareness. But Professor Thrift warns that this could change with geography being dropped from the core curriculum in England and Wales. Teaching has already become broader as applicants tend to have a wider range of A levels rather than specialising entirely in science or arts subjects, he says. "You can't assume the things you used to assume about what they know, so in the first year, you teach a little more broadly."

Geography facts

* In 1996, 226 geography courses were classed as a physical science, taught in 56 higher education institutions, and 234 courses were classed as a social study, taught in 65 institutions.

* The number of applications rose from 30,660 in 1987 to 45,876 in 1995, while the number of accepted applicants rose from 2,763 to 4,826.

* Almost a quarter of geography graduates go on to further study, compared to 19 per cent of all graduates.

* Other graduates were most likely to become managers or administrators, or go into clerical or secretarial jobs.

Source: UCAS and CSU

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