Tuesday, 5 March 2013

GIS and cartography in UK academia


The International Benchmarking Review of UK Human Geography provides some interesting reading for those of us in the geo-industry. Having spent most of my career in UK academia (Northampton University and Kingston University) I find very little of the report surprising and, particularly the way in which they review GIS and cartographic provision with alarm.  Some of us have been saying it for years. I urge anyone interested in the role of Universities in developing the next generation of geospatial professionals to read the document. It makes some pertinent observations. I have a view, based on my experience, that I can add to the document to put some flesh on the bones of why GIS and cartography is in such a parlous state in UK Universities.  These are by no means universal and there are a few really excellent Universities and courses that buck the general trend but here goes...

Poor academic salaries, particularly for junior staff starting out is a real disincentive. Universities want to pay peanuts for novice staff on non-permanent contracts. They get high teaching loads and poor support for their research and are often let go after only a year or two. There are very few young academics in this area. Kingston upon Thames  is an expensive place to live. Senior management routinely offered starting salaries at the lowest possible level that were unable to meet even the basic costs of rental accommodation. Appointing experienced staff on higher salaries was rarely an option because staff turnover was normally seen as a way of trimming the salary budget. Inexperienced staff, of course, add to the burden of senior colleagues due to the constant rotation of mentoring of new staff...it takes time!

The culture of academia has become so bureaucratically driven that incessant form filling, reviewing, approval and validation became the daily norm. This was largely to feed internal processes and acted as a means to feed some form of quality control....usually merely a paper exercise.  Young academics do not want to enter this sort of profession, driven by pointless  administration where they are treated poorly.  High turnover of young staff is inevitable. Low turnover of older staff in comfy slippers is rare.

Low student numbers applying to geospatial courses are a fact. Despite the clear demand for geospatial professionals it’s a battle to persuade school pupils that there is a career in geospatial. Geography is still a marginal subject at school level if truth be told; school teachers rarely have GIS/cartography (web, server etc) skills themselves, or resources. Couple this with the perceived simplicity of commercial products (maps on phones), it’s often hard for young people and parents to see it as a career. The map is complete right? Therefore a very small number actively seek a geospatial degree. They tend to play it safe and go for the traditional geography degree...or something with the word ‘environmental’ in the title.

Geospatial focussed degree programmes are rare (and dwindling). GIS is usually done as part of geography degrees and squeezed. There isn’t enough space to fit everything and skills/methods type courses are often the first to be marginalised. Kingston have gone down this route but are simply the latest in a line of respected degree courses to have closed or cut back this provision.

It’s expensive to resource a geospatial degree programme with dedicated hardware, software and ancillary equipment. For only a few students, the cost is often deemed too much. Yes there are ways around many of the costs but not enough to avoid the inevitable. There was an art to fund equipment purchases for our GIS programmes at Kingston...we did well; but to the annoyance of many.

The number of academic staff who have left geo-academia and sought a career outside is proof positive of the state of the problem. Salaries are much better outside academia and the huge bureaucratic and administrative burden that you shed is reason enough to make the switch. The report doesn’t make enough of the quality of life aspect. It needs to understand why people want to be academics and why, after experiencing its demands for a number of years, many leave if they can. People leave for simple reasons - they get fed up of the daily battles and the inability to do their job properly.

There are simply too many geography degree programmes. It dilutes provision and there are not enough students to go round. Students tend to actively avoid the technical aspects of geography; they always have and it’s doubtful this will change any time soon.

Pace of progress in the geospatial industry is not commensurate with academic timescales. From proposal to first intake is often several years for new courses to be approved. By then, change has already made validated proposals outdated. Changing course content once approved can also take a couple of years due to internal University validation procedures. Additionally, by the time a student graduates, their first year is probably already outdated.  We worked around the system at Kingston and managed most of our changes under the radar. It was a necessary approach if we were to remain relevant and at the cutting edge.

It is now impossible for academics to keep up with the pace of change. Notwithstanding structural barriers, there simply is not enough time to update practicals and lectures every year to reflect the state of play in the industry. There’s plenty of free materials available to use such as courseware, online lecture notes and practicals etc but use of this is all too often seen as a short cut and frowned upon...particularly as students are charged for their course. There needs to be much greater openness to the idea that it’s simply not necessary for every course and every lecturer to develop materials from scratch and update them year on year.

Students get disenfranchised when they perceive their lecturers are more interested in their research career and are largely anonymous. They rapidly lose respect and it becomes clear to them that they are being fed dated material by people who seem disinterested. Of course this is a perennial problem since academics live or die by the quality of their publication record. It’s an unreasonable expectation. It’s inevitable that those who concentrate on that aspect of their job do not have the time to meet competing demands elsewhere.

Employers of geospatial graduates often do not appreciate what they are seeking themselves and GIS degrees are often seen as inferior.  Entry salaries are low and promotional opportunities are scarce. Graduate geospatial jobs are often filled by those who have gone on to gain an MSc qualification. The job market is extremely competitive. In short, it is often not someone with an idea of what a geospatial graduate is or what they can offer that is actively recruiting...they throw around terms without really understanding.

Geography as a discipline tends to ignore the very real demand for graduates who have a skill set that combines an understanding of geography with that of a computer scientist. Pushing buttons is not adequate. Being able to code and understand computer science is a vital cog in the armoury of the skilled geospatial graduate. Attracting students to this sort of mix brings with it its own challenges of course. And there are also precious few courses that truly mix the disciplines because geography and computer science are normally delivered from different Faculty silos meaning resource models struggle to support inter-Faculty course provision.

I have long said that the US is 10 years ahead of the UK in believing in and investing in geospatial education. The simple test is this...ask someone on the street in the UK what GIS is and they will likely not have a clue. Ask someone in the US and they likely will.  GIS permeates education and awareness is strong in the US. This is reflected in the fact that nearly a quarter of all geographically related job adverts in the US are GIS related compared to 2% in the UK. Quite simply, the mindset in UK academia has been to marginalise GIS and that approach is now strikingly apparent.

It’s quite possible that the thematic splicing of geography into sub disciplines is no longer relevant. Certainly, infusing GIS across the curriculum and genuinely using it as a coordinating framework would better integrate it. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t receive detailed treatment in its own right but there needs to be a better approach than simply offering a single methods option. My experience of this is that it doesn’t work. It needs embedding across the curriculum.

Even when you demonstrate innovation and world-leading research and teaching it’s sometimes impossible to convince people of the value. At Kingston we did both but while we had considerable external respect (high research profiles, good graduate employment figures, awards, invited keynotes, strong links with the geocommunity etc) the GIS courses internally were regarded as intellectually subservient to all other geo-provision; and a financial sump. We worked magic to navigate the internal barriers and maintain our international position but ultimately you can only do that for so long.

For me, page 26 is very telling reading. Look at which Universities responded to the review and which didn’t.  My old stomping ground is strikingly absent..as are most of the so-called newer universities.  If you cannot encourage an institution that purports to have valued GIS for the best part of 25 years and act as a focal point then you probably have all you need to know about the battle that lies ahead to get institutions to value GIS and cartography which the report is screaming for.

1 comment:

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