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Geography and the Shifting Ratios of Inequality – University, A levels and GCSEs in 2020

By Danny Dorling, University of Oxford, UK

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.

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. 

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.

RankPolar 1Polar 5Polar 1All StudentsRatioDegree Accepted to Study in UK in 2019
14.23%50.78%95224512.00L7 – Human and Social Geography
24.65%51.16%3064511.00A2 – Pre-clinical Dentistry
34.83%46.90%357259.71D1 – Pre-clinical Veterinary Medicine
45.15%50.00%356809.71Q8 – Classical studies
55.05%47.05%27053459.32L1 – Economics
 5.32%46.36%23043258.72L7 and F8 combined (all Geography)
66.02%51.20%508308.50R9 – European Languages and Lit
76.54%47.06%507657.20RR – Combinations within European Langs…
86.34%45.32%33552857.15A1 – Pre-clinical Medicine
94.46%30.36%255606.81B5 – Ophthalmics
106.67%44.10%659756.61V5 – Philosophy
116.49%41.59%13520806.41F8 – Physical geographical sciences
127.21%45.19%7510406.27Y Combs of social studies/bus/law with langs
137.01%41.82%13519255.97Y Combs of soc studies/law with business
146.12%36.05%457355.89F6 – Geology
157.06%41.00%29041105.81L2 – Politics
167.60%44.13%28537505.81Z Combs of 3 subjects, or other general…
176.45%36.13%507755.60F7 – Science of aquatic & terrestrial environ.
187.27%36.82%8011005.06N3 – Finance
197.39%35.80%9512854.84K2 – Building
208.14%37.74%36044254.64G1 – Mathematics
218.51%38.65%12014104.54H8 – Chemical, Process and Energy Engineering
228.69%39.26%45552354.52N2 – Management studies
238.89%40.00%606754.50Y Combs of languages
248.65%38.78%13515604.48LL – Combinations within Social Studies
258.84%37.83%28532254.28Y Combs of soc. Stud./bus/law with arts/hum.
269.35%40.00%54057754.28V1 – History by Period
279.10%38.40%36540104.22H3 – Mechanical Engineering
288.29%34.46%16019304.16H2 – Civil Engineering
299.27%37.86%29031304.08F3 – Physics
308.84%35.99%20523204.07B1 – Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology
317.61%30.98%709204.07D4 – Agriculture
329.38%37.50%606404.00Y Combs of phys /math/comp sciences
339.38%36.42%38040503.88C1 – Biology
349.09%34.32%20022003.78N5 – Marketing
359.94%36.77%53053303.70N1 – Business studies
3610.25%37.63%29028303.67Y Combs of languages with arts/humanities
379.93%36.14%26526703.64H1 – General Engineering
389.57%33.91%22023003.54K1 – Architecture
3910.13%34.97%31030603.45F1 – Chemistry
4010.47%35.39%50047753.38Q3 – English studies
4110.07%33.68%14514403.34H6 – Electronic and Electrical Engineering
4210.25%33.50%20520003.27H4 – Aerospace Engineering
4311.03%35.29%756803.20VV – Combinations within Hist & Phil. studies
4411.11%34.87%14513053.14Y Combs of phys/math with soc. Stud./bus/law
4511.30%34.46%1008853.05L6 – Anthropology
4610.75%32.64%28526503.04C7 – Molecular Biology, Biophysics & Biochem
4710.84%32.79%63058103.02NN – Combs. within Business & Admin Studies
489.74%27.01%28529252.77N4 – Accounting
4911.84%32.03%42535902.71W3 – Music
5010.70%28.79%27525702.69B2 – Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmacy
5110.04%26.25%13012952.61C9 – Others in Biological Sciences
5211.54%29.80%74064102.58W2 – Design studies
5312.14%31.07%12510302.56C3 – Zoology
5411.34%27.53%14012352.43Y Combs of social studies/law
5512.30%29.53%91074002.40I1 – Computer Science
5612.11%28.13%15512802.32P5 – Journalism
5712.65%28.77%1660131202.27C8 – Psychology
5812.11%27.21%42535102.25P3 – Media studies
5913.64%30.30%906602.22WW – Combs. within Creative Arts and Design
6012.67%28.02%1485117252.21M1 – Law by Area
6113.61%30.00%41530502.20W6 – Cinematics and Photography
6213.29%29.11%1057902.19Y Combs of arts/humanities
6311.48%25.14%1059152.19B8 – Medical Technology
6412.18%26.24%61550502.15B9 – Others in Subjects allied to Medicine
6512.96%27.23%64049402.10L3 – Sociology
6613.44%27.97%30522702.08N8 – Hospitality, leisure, sport, tourism & transport
6713.77%27.29%28520701.98Y Combs of science/eng. with social studies/bus/law
6812.68%24.88%13010251.96M2 – Law by Topic
6914.23%27.64%17512301.94Y Combs of science/eng. with arts/humanities/languages
7013.49%25.12%14510751.86W1 – Fine Art
7113.51%24.66%20014801.83Y Combs of med/bio/agric sciences
7214.42%25.80%45031201.79W4 – Drama
7314.25%24.97%113079301.75C6 – Sport and Exercise Science
7413.35%22.89%42031451.71X1 – Training Teachers
7516.09%25.29%1408701.57I3 – Software Engineering
7614.60%21.17%1006851.45I2 – Information Systems
7715.89%22.43%855351.41II – Combinations in Computer Sciences
7817.48%23.79%18010301.36D3 – Animal Science
7916.53%21.49%1006051.30W5 – Dance
8015.28%19.82%50533051.30X3 – Academic studies in Education
8117.01%19.23%115067601.13B7 – Nursing
8219.20%20.40%24012501.06F4 – Forensic and Archaeological Science
8320.27%20.95%1507401.03L4 – Social Policy
8419.14%19.47%29015151.02M9 – Others in Law
8521.84%19.16%28513050.88I6 – Games
8621.53%14.85%43520200.69L5 – Social Work
Table – 86 subjects ranked by Polar 5 to Polar 1 ratio in 2019, UK universities age 18
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,!/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, Honorary President of the Society of Cartographers and a patron of Roadpeace, the national charity for road crash victims. Much of Danny’s work is available open access (see 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.

Dorling, D. (2019). Kindness: A new kind of rigour for British Geographers. Emotion, Space and Society33, 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.

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