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Dwindling uptake

Alan Richardson offers a personal perspective on the dwindling student uptake and negative public perceptions of geology

1 December 2023

University geology departments in the UK are struggling to recruit undergraduates, and A-level numbers have crashed so far that there are barely sufficient candidates to justify two exam boards still offering it. The reasons for this are varied: the geology community must share the blame with poorly informed governments, unsupportive educational organisations, and increasingly patronising documentary makers.

Government education policies have throttled geology. In the 1980s many education authorities closed their schools’ sixth forms and combined A-level and further education provision in ‘Tertiary Colleges’, which allowed minority subjects to flourish. With the introduction of AS-levels, students could take four AS-levels in their first year and drop to three in the second, providing scope for experimentation with an unfamiliar subject. 

Similarly, ‘resit years’, which recognised that young people do not simultaneously reach the level of cognitive development or emotional maturity required for examinations, provided space on the timetables of students who had narrowly failed to reach their full potential on the first attempt to explore subjects such as geology. 

However, government took all colleges out of local authority control and made them into independent organisations, and new school sixth forms proliferated. With each A-level cohort spread so thinly, minority subjects became unviable in most institutions. The AS-level formula has been abandoned and institutions no longer receive funding for a student who fails and requires a second attempt. Educational institutions are now run as businesses, increasingly headed by non-academic CEOs. This ‘business model’ for education has led to a plethora of institutions competing for students. It is financially advantageous for them to target the high-volume, low-cost courses that rely heavily on IT, rather than physical resources. Practical subjects that cannot be run in generic classrooms are an expensive inconvenience (field courses are particularly costly and unwelcome), and non-academic benefits that cannot be easily quantified are deemed to have little value.

Turning educational institutions into businesses has led to costly marketing wars. Money that would be better spent in the classroom is now siphoned off to pay for advertising campaigns, while a proliferation of middle managers with myriad non-teaching responsibilities, including recruitment, visit schools to promote a college brand – not individual subjects.

Government policies on education go in circles, and it may only be a matter of time before we return to a system in which minority subjects like geology could again flourish. However, in the meantime the resources and expertise necessary for their delivery will have disappeared. The need for this country to secure a steady supply of well-qualified geology graduates cannot wait for serendipity to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the solution seems to rest with individual educational institutions that have no financial interest in remediating this situation, and unless there is someone at management level to champion the subject it is all too easy for it to be eliminated. 

While many geography teachers, and science teachers with a geology background, support and encourage the provision of geology in schools and colleges, there are many science teachers who regard geology as a portmanteau subject of no real merit, and some university academics who would prefer their undergraduates to have studied ‘real sciences’ at A-level. 

Government policies reinforce this perception: the exclusion of geology from the ‘Progress 8’ list of science subjects for schools suggests that government is unaware that geology is the basis of the most fundamental of strategic industries. From large-scale infrastructure projects like Hinkley Point, HS2 and Crossrail to local residential developments, nothing can be done without reference to geologists. The host of critical minerals that underpin our energy transition must be discovered by geologists, and their input is essential for developing geothermal power and managing water resources. 

As a lecturer, I was frequently asked by prospective students and their parents, “Are there any jobs in geology?” Despite the country’s need for a continuing supply of well-qualified geology graduates, the public (and careers advisors) appear largely ignorant of the rewards of a career in geology. 

The higher echelons of the geological community seem fixated on the notion that the public associate geology with pollution and the desecration of nature’s beauty. To redress this perception, universities are promoting the role of geology in addressing environmental problems, but this approach is more likely to push students toward taking environmental science, rather than geology.

The visual media play a part in this ignorance. The current formula for a successful science documentary seems to be: recruit a celebrity presenter, tell the viewers what we know and patronise them with an occasional facile attempt at explanation using cake, or some other inappropriate visual metaphor. 

The BBC’s new series, Earth, offers a prime example. Presented by Chris Packham (not a noted geologist), the first instalment deals with the end-Permian mass extinction. Packham tells us that ‘pioneering new science’ has given us a much better understanding of this event, but while pioneering new CGI techniques provide a colourful spectacle, we are not invited to share in the nature of this new science, which resides in the shamanistic minds of ‘scientists’. Geology and geologists never get a mention; nothing is ever said that suggests that any of this work was conducted by geologists. 

Indeed, you rarely hear the term ‘geologist’ in the media and geologists are far too proud of their specialisms to demean themselves with such a generic term – they are palaeontologists, volcanologists, seismologists, palaeoclimatologists, geotechnical engineers and so on. It is hardly surprising that the public do not recognise these as disciplines within geology, leaving them with the impression of a geologist as a nerd who looks pointlessly at boring lumps of rock. 

Documentaries need to explain not ‘what we know’, but ‘how we know what we know’ using everyday language. Many academics cannot do this without using the arcane lexicon of their specialism, but claim that the ignorance of the audience would not allow them to understand an explanation. If there is doubt as to the ability of a general audience to follow a well-presented explanation, one only has to try to follow the labyrinthine plots of some popular crime dramas. 

Documentary makers are underestimating their audiences. Geology should be presented as a puzzle, offering an audience clues to which they can relate and that can lead to satisfying interpretations. Rocks tell us their stories – if people are shown how rocks do this, they become interested. 

As long as geologists present themselves as shamans who have an exclusive ability to communicate with Earth, they will alienate many from geology as a science, and ‘studying rocks’ will continue to be viewed as the arcane pursuit of idiosyncratic eccentrics, with no real value to society.

Alan Richardson 

Alan Richardson taught A-level geology for 35 years, and worked as a tutor for the Open University and Field Studies Council. He is currently an External Subject Consultant for Ofqual, and runs practical geology workshops for the Open University Geological Society (ougs.org).

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