International Benchmarking Review of UK Physical Geography

David Thomas, Philip Ashworth, Jo Nield, Catherine Souch

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Physical geography in the UK is extraordinarily rich and diverse. It provides insights into processes and forms in the natural environment, including climate and atmosphere, geomorphology and landscape, biogeography and ecosystems, hydrology and water science, oceans and soils. The use, application and development of technologies, including Earth observation, GIS, and geochronological tools, are integral parts of contemporary physical geography. This report is the first to compile evidence on the health and influence 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. Physical geography brings a unique spatial perspective, and the capability to integrate across scales and subdisciplinary systems. It links to aspects of environmental science, mathematics, physics and life sciences. It sets intellectual agendas both within and beyond geography, and leads eminent international collaborative research programmes. The ‘de-siloing’ of science in the 21st century in response to big ‘whole world’ societal-environment challenges demonstrates the value of approaches which have always been integral to UK physical geography. UK physical geography is international in outlook, is world-leading in many subareas, and influences the discipline worldwide. This is achieved through many routes including: international research partnerships; the training given to overseas students in UK geography departments, particularly at graduate level; and the roles played by UK-based academics in international professional bodies, international journal editorships and major conferences. UK physical geography research is funded from diverse sources and punches well above its weight in terms of success rates at the UK Research Councils. In the last decade, European funding has also been vital in supporting UK physical geography research. New substantial funding opportunities are emerging including through the UK’s Global Challenges ResearchFund and Industrial Strategy, which physical geography is well placed to engage with.Additionally, the opportunities for postgraduate doctoral research in physical geography have been enhanced with the advent of the UK Research Council doctoral training programmes. The future of physical geography is bright. It is witnessing a resurgence in popularity in schools in England. Curriculum changes, increasing physical geography’s presence within A-Levels in England and Wales, are positive developments, as are a greater emphasis on fieldwork, individual project work and data skills. These provide opportunities for physical geography to bolster its position within the discipline in schools and beyond. The situation is not consistent across the UK; it is hoped that changes can be made in the content of Scottish Highers that leads to greater balance in the content of physical and human geography. At university, physical geography is a popular and growing subject choice and attracts some of the highest-calibre students to its undergraduate degrees. As well as being taught in UK university geography undergraduate programmes, physical geography is widespread in other degree structures and departments. Successful course delivery is contingent upon institutions providing appropriate access to laboratory facilities, fieldwork opportunities and quantitative training. Physical geography undergraduates perform well in their degrees, express high level of courses satisfaction, and have excellent employment outcomes compared to many disciplines. 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. It is recommended that a working group representative of constituent bodies within UK physical geography, led by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) (RGS-IBG), is set up to take forward the ssues associated with thesechallenges.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages52
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017

Bibliographical note

© 2017 Royal Geographical Society


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