Why should the exam debacle of 2020 matter to Geographers? One answer is that Geography is likely to be especially affected by the rise in intake in universities that will now occur. This is because even a very small increase in people from less affluent backgrounds taking Geography at University will have a larger effect on this subject than any other in terms of university inequality statistics. More young people from poorer backgrounds will now be admitted in 2020 across the country. There may also be a knock-on effect in two years time when students with higher GCSE grades apply to university. First, a little background.

 

Entry into GCSE Geography study by Free School Meal Status

GCSE Geography Entry rates in England for students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds (measured by proxy of who receives Free School Meals). Source and copyright: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

 

The graph above, kindly provided by Steve Brace and Catherine Souch of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG), shows that the gap in those choosing to take a GCSE in Geography in England from disadvantaged compared to advantaged backgrounds narrowed between 2015 and 2016 after Geography was included as a subject in what is known as the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and schools were encouraged to increase the proportion of their pupils taking Geography. This came about largely because fewer children from disadvantaged backgrounds – defined here as qualifying for free school meals (FSM) – had traditionally taken Geography. However, we did not then see a narrowing in the social divides of who went on to take Geography at A level; and the social divide in who carried on to study Geography at University (which was already wide), widened further for the cohorts who took Geography more often at GCSE (up until the 2019 entry year).

The graph below is also drawn from work currently being undertaken by the RGS-IBG which shows both the expected and actual A-level uptake per FSM quintile. The data show the outcome once all other associated factors have been stripped away, with geography as a subject underperforming. This means, for instance, that although a black student living in the inner city may be much less likely to enrol in A-Levels anyway, if they enrol at all they are even less likely to enrol in geography. This obviously has implications for the longer term ‘pipeline’ when it comes to diversity in university cohorts. In the graph below the point labelled ‘Q5’ represents pupils from the fifth of schools with the income poorest students; about 2% of the pupils in such schools would be expected to take an A level in Geography, but the actual proportion is nearer to 1.5% or about 6 times fewer than from the best-off fifth of schools.

 

Expected vs actual entry into A-level by Free School Meal Cohort

Actual versus expected entry into A-Level geography by school free school meal quintile. This measure is taken once all other affecting factors have been removed. Source and copyright: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

 

The ratio of inequality between the quintiles can be seen to rise between GCSEs and A levels in England, up to a six-to-one inequality. That ratio of inequality then rises again when we look at who manages to enter university to study Geography. The statistics shown next are divided between Physical Geography and Human Geography because UCAS uses different course codes. Geographers have known for a long time that their subject in England has been tending to attract fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds than it should. Interestingly, very recent research in the USA shows that if the more physical environmental and sustainable sides of the subject are highlighted (and the word Geography is emphasised less) this bias is reduced a little.

When it comes to the study of Geography at all UK universities: in 2019 – of all UK domiciled 18 year old students who were accepted to study human geography – only 4.23% were from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods by educational achievement as compared to 50.78% who were from the most affluent fifth of such areas (areas which are also home to the most private school pupils). Or, to put it another way, an educationally affluent 18 year old was 50.78/4.23=12.00 times more likely to be accepted to study human geography than a poorer 18 year old in the most recent year for which data is available.

Of 86 other mainstream subjects studied at any UK university, no other has a ratio of social inequality by entry as high as Human Geography had in 2019 – the year before the pandemic. The respective figures for Physical Geography were 6.49 and 41.59 or a ratio of 6.41 (very similar to the A level ratio). That is better, but still not normal for university access in the UK. For studying Mathematics, the ratio was 4.64; Music: 2.71; Sociology 2.10; Social Policy: 1.03. Since this statistic was first measured in 2007 it has worsened, with Human Geography’s social inequality ratio being highest in 2019. If we combine the two sides of Geography the ratio becomes 8.72, less exclusive than Economics but more than European Languages (see table below).

So, what will happen following the debacle of 2020 when both GCSE results and A level results were awarded on teacher recommendations (thankfully) rather than by algorithm? My guess, and at the moment is this:

  1. More young people will study Geography at University in 2020, or with a place deferred until 2021, because more will have been awarded the A level grades allowing them to do this
  2. Almost all the students from the most advantaged fifth of areas would have been going to University anyway so this increase in grades across the board will narrow the access inequality ratio.
  3. The inequality ratio in 2020 for Geography may well narrow by more than most other mainstream subjects as just a tiny number of additional students can alter the ratio so much.
  4. Human and Social Geography (“L7”) is very unlikely to top the list in 2020 when the equivalent figures to those shown in the table below are calculated by UCAS.
  5. Next in the pipeline: more students will stay on at sixth forms in England and take A levels given the large increase in GCSE grades awarded in 2020 (an extra 1 in 10 passing).
  6. This will again have a disproportionate effect on Geography as, again, just a few extra students from backgrounds more likely to be awarded low GCSEs greatly alter graphs such as those above.
  7. Scepticism over the normal work of the exam boards will grow in the coming year. It will be hard for universities to reverse this trend and ignore teachers’ views in future.

For Geography at UK universities, the tide towards greater inequality and less diversity may have turned in 2020, but to ensure it has will take more work. Admissions officers must take more note of what teachers say about pupils from schools and neighbourhoods and social groups that are traditionally at a disadvantage. Geography departments in England must make lower tariff offers to such students, as already now happens in Scotland. The alternative will be a return to the situation in 2019.

 

Table – 86 subjects ranked by Polar 5 to Polar 1 ratio in 2019, UK universities age 18

Rank Polar 1 Polar 5 Polar 1 All Students Ratio Degree Accepted to Study in UK in 2019
1 4.23% 50.78% 95 2245 12.00 L7 – Human and Social Geography
2 4.65% 51.16% 30 645 11.00 A2 – Pre-clinical Dentistry
3 4.83% 46.90% 35 725 9.71 D1 – Pre-clinical Veterinary Medicine
4 5.15% 50.00% 35 680 9.71 Q8 – Classical studies
5 5.05% 47.05% 270 5345 9.32 L1 – Economics
5.32% 46.36% 230 4325 8.72 L7 and F8 combined (all Geography)
6 6.02% 51.20% 50 830 8.50 R9 – European Languages and Lit
7 6.54% 47.06% 50 765 7.20 RR – Combinations within European Langs…
8 6.34% 45.32% 335 5285 7.15 A1 – Pre-clinical Medicine
9 4.46% 30.36% 25 560 6.81 B5 – Ophthalmics
10 6.67% 44.10% 65 975 6.61 V5 – Philosophy
11 6.49% 41.59% 135 2080 6.41 F8 – Physical geographical sciences
12 7.21% 45.19% 75 1040 6.27 Y Combs of social studies/bus/law with langs
13 7.01% 41.82% 135 1925 5.97 Y Combs of soc studies/law with business
14 6.12% 36.05% 45 735 5.89 F6 – Geology
15 7.06% 41.00% 290 4110 5.81 L2 – Politics
16 7.60% 44.13% 285 3750 5.81 Z Combs of 3 subjects, or other general…
17 6.45% 36.13% 50 775 5.60 F7 – Science of aquatic & terrestrial environ.
18 7.27% 36.82% 80 1100 5.06 N3 – Finance
19 7.39% 35.80% 95 1285 4.84 K2 – Building
20 8.14% 37.74% 360 4425 4.64 G1 – Mathematics
21 8.51% 38.65% 120 1410 4.54 H8 – Chemical, Process and Energy Engineering
22 8.69% 39.26% 455 5235 4.52 N2 – Management studies
23 8.89% 40.00% 60 675 4.50 Y Combs of languages
24 8.65% 38.78% 135 1560 4.48 LL – Combinations within Social Studies
25 8.84% 37.83% 285 3225 4.28 Y Combs of soc. Stud./bus/law with arts/hum.
26 9.35% 40.00% 540 5775 4.28 V1 – History by Period
27 9.10% 38.40% 365 4010 4.22 H3 – Mechanical Engineering
28 8.29% 34.46% 160 1930 4.16 H2 – Civil Engineering
29 9.27% 37.86% 290 3130 4.08 F3 – Physics
30 8.84% 35.99% 205 2320 4.07 B1 – Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology
31 7.61% 30.98% 70 920 4.07 D4 – Agriculture
32 9.38% 37.50% 60 640 4.00 Y Combs of phys /math/comp sciences
33 9.38% 36.42% 380 4050 3.88 C1 – Biology
34 9.09% 34.32% 200 2200 3.78 N5 – Marketing
35 9.94% 36.77% 530 5330 3.70 N1 – Business studies
36 10.25% 37.63% 290 2830 3.67 Y Combs of languages with arts/humanities
37 9.93% 36.14% 265 2670 3.64 H1 – General Engineering
38 9.57% 33.91% 220 2300 3.54 K1 – Architecture
39 10.13% 34.97% 310 3060 3.45 F1 – Chemistry
40 10.47% 35.39% 500 4775 3.38 Q3 – English studies
41 10.07% 33.68% 145 1440 3.34 H6 – Electronic and Electrical Engineering
42 10.25% 33.50% 205 2000 3.27 H4 – Aerospace Engineering
43 11.03% 35.29% 75 680 3.20 VV – Combinations within Hist & Phil. studies
44 11.11% 34.87% 145 1305 3.14 Y Combs of phys/math with soc. Stud./bus/law
45 11.30% 34.46% 100 885 3.05 L6 – Anthropology
46 10.75% 32.64% 285 2650 3.04 C7 – Molecular Biology, Biophysics & Biochem
47 10.84% 32.79% 630 5810 3.02 NN – Combs. within Business & Admin Studies
48 9.74% 27.01% 285 2925 2.77 N4 – Accounting
49 11.84% 32.03% 425 3590 2.71 W3 – Music
50 10.70% 28.79% 275 2570 2.69 B2 – Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmacy
51 10.04% 26.25% 130 1295 2.61 C9 – Others in Biological Sciences
52 11.54% 29.80% 740 6410 2.58 W2 – Design studies
53 12.14% 31.07% 125 1030 2.56 C3 – Zoology
54 11.34% 27.53% 140 1235 2.43 Y Combs of social studies/law
55 12.30% 29.53% 910 7400 2.40 I1 – Computer Science
56 12.11% 28.13% 155 1280 2.32 P5 – Journalism
57 12.65% 28.77% 1660 13120 2.27 C8 – Psychology
58 12.11% 27.21% 425 3510 2.25 P3 – Media studies
59 13.64% 30.30% 90 660 2.22 WW – Combs. within Creative Arts and Design
60 12.67% 28.02% 1485 11725 2.21 M1 – Law by Area
61 13.61% 30.00% 415 3050 2.20 W6 – Cinematics and Photography
62 13.29% 29.11% 105 790 2.19 Y Combs of arts/humanities
63 11.48% 25.14% 105 915 2.19 B8 – Medical Technology
64 12.18% 26.24% 615 5050 2.15 B9 – Others in Subjects allied to Medicine
65 12.96% 27.23% 640 4940 2.10 L3 – Sociology
66 13.44% 27.97% 305 2270 2.08 N8 – Hospitality, leisure, sport, tourism & transport
67 13.77% 27.29% 285 2070 1.98 Y Combs of science/eng. with social studies/bus/law
68 12.68% 24.88% 130 1025 1.96 M2 – Law by Topic
69 14.23% 27.64% 175 1230 1.94 Y Combs of science/eng. with arts/humanities/languages
70 13.49% 25.12% 145 1075 1.86 W1 – Fine Art
71 13.51% 24.66% 200 1480 1.83 Y Combs of med/bio/agric sciences
72 14.42% 25.80% 450 3120 1.79 W4 – Drama
73 14.25% 24.97% 1130 7930 1.75 C6 – Sport and Exercise Science
74 13.35% 22.89% 420 3145 1.71 X1 – Training Teachers
75 16.09% 25.29% 140 870 1.57 I3 – Software Engineering
76 14.60% 21.17% 100 685 1.45 I2 – Information Systems
77 15.89% 22.43% 85 535 1.41 II – Combinations in Computer Sciences
78 17.48% 23.79% 180 1030 1.36 D3 – Animal Science
79 16.53% 21.49% 100 605 1.30 W5 – Dance
80 15.28% 19.82% 505 3305 1.30 X3 – Academic studies in Education
81 17.01% 19.23% 1150 6760 1.13 B7 – Nursing
82 19.20% 20.40% 240 1250 1.06 F4 – Forensic and Archaeological Science
83 20.27% 20.95% 150 740 1.03 L4 – Social Policy
84 19.14% 19.47% 290 1515 1.02 M9 – Others in Law
85 21.84% 19.16% 285 1305 0.88 I6 – Games
86 21.53% 14.85% 435 2020 0.69 L5 – Social Work

Note: data rounded to nearest five in the original source files to preserve anonymity. And a combined geography total added (unranked).
Source: Kernohan, D. (2020) % POLAR4 Q1 vs % POLAR4 Q5 – 2019 cycle by JACS principal subject, UCAS Acceptances, UK domiciled 18 year olds, Public Tableau of UCAS data, July 6th, https://public.tableau.com/profile/david.kernohan#!/vizhome/Principalsubject-POLAR/Sheet1

 

About the Author: Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professors in Geography at the University of Oxford. He is a social and political geogrpaher with a particular interest in inequalities. He is an Academician of the Academy of the Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, was the Honorary President of the Society of Cartographers for ten years and  is a patron of Roadpeace, the national charity for road crash victims. Much of Danny’s work is available open access (see www.dannydorling.org) and his most recent book is Slowdown.

 

 

 

Suggested further reading

McIlwaine, C, Bunge, D. (2019). Placing diversity among undergraduate Geography students in London: Reflections on attainment and progression. Area. 51: 500– 507. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12506

Dorling, D. (2019). Kindness: A new kind of rigour for British Geographers. Emotion, Space and Society33, 100630. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2019.100630

Wyse, S, Page, B, Walkington, H, Hill, JL. Degree outcomes and national calibration: Debating academic standards in UK Geography. Area. 2019; 52: 376– 385. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12571

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