Issues Magazine

Rebuilding the Mathematical Sciences

By Hyam Rubinstein

In the face of declining graduate numbers, the mathematical science community is advocating ways to increase careers awareness and improve teaching supply.

The number of students studying the Year 12 mathematics courses required for entry into technological and physical sciences and engineering courses has dropped alarmingly.

Australia has had a stellar reputation in mathematics and statistics, producing outstanding figures in areas such as fluid mechanics, non-linear analysis and partial differential equations, probability and statistics. In 2006 Professor Terry Tao was awarded a Fields Medal.

Our school education in mathematics has traditionally been strong. Australia also has a notable record of achievement in the International Mathematical Olympiad, with a network of outstanding teachers and academics involved in training activities.

However, substantial problems have become apparent in the decade between the national reviews of the mathematical sciences in 1995 and 2006. The number of school students studying the advanced and intermediate Year 12 mathematics courses required for entry into technological and physical sciences and engineering courses has dropped alarmingly. For advanced mathematics at Year 12, the decline was 20%, and many schools no longer offer this subject as an option. Intermediate mathematics numbers have declined by a similar degree.

The demand for mathematical and statistical graduates has outstripped supply in recent years, and forecasts are for this situation to become worse. OECD figures from 2003 showed that Australia produces 0.4% of its university graduates in the mathematical sciences, compared with the OECD average of 1%. In fact, the number of such graduates from Australian universities has decreased from 2100 to 1800 in the period 2001–07, so 0.4% is now an optimistic figure.

Not surprisingly, the number of senior mathematics teachers in Australian schools who do not have a 3-year degree majoring in the mathematical sciences has increased from 30% in 1999 to 40% in 2007. Finally, the performance of Australian Year 8 students in the international study Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has dropped from statistically above the UK and the US in 1995 to below these countries in 2007.

The mathematical sciences community has been active in trying to improve the situation. The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) was established in November 2002 with initial funding from the Victorian Government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Infrastructure grants program and matching funds from a member consortium of Australian universities and other mathematical organisations.

AMSI plays a vital role in developing interactions with industry, fostering research workshops and intensive courses for Honours and postgraduate students. AMSI has produced high-quality textbooks, professional development and other materials for schools and teachers. Currently, core activities of AMSI are funded by cash-strapped university mathematical sciences departments.

In 2006 a national review of the mathematical sciences in Australia included representatives from industry. Eminent international reviewers commented: “We found the nation’s distinguished tradition in mathematics and statistics to be on a truly perilous path”.

In the decade from 1995 to 2006, Australian universities had decreased teaching and research positions in mathematics and statistics by more than 30%.

The national review’s two priorities were increased government funding per student for the teaching of mathematics and statistics, and support for the key infrastructure represented by AMSI. Its five key recommendations also called for a campaign to increase careers awareness in the mathematical sciences for students, parents and schools, and measures to improve the supply of mathematics teachers.

The Howard government’s 2007 budget supported the first of these initiatives by raising the funding for teaching of the mathematical sciences in universities by nearly $3000 per full-time student. However, only a handful of universities have passed on more than a token amount of the extra funding to mathematical sciences departments, so the number of academic positions has continued to slide in the 2007–08 period by approximately 8% nationally. This was a truly disappointing outcome.

Recently, with the encouragement of key advisers to the Rudd government, we produced an updated strategic plan with more focus on the schools issues. This plan can be downloaded from the AMSI website.

The plan includes:

  • national registration for mathematics teachers to establish standards of mathematics knowledge required for teaching at different levels in schools;
  • incentives to attract more appropriately trained graduates into teaching;
  • establishing specialists in mathematics in primary schools similar to language specialists; and
  • requests to the universities from the government to report on the use of the increased funding of the mathematical sciences.
    • Engineering and the technological sciences are natural partners of the mathematical sciences. Without a strong foundation of knowledge and confidence in applying mathematics and statistics, students have reduced chance of success both in their studies and in their careers.

      First published in ATSE Focus, vol. 155, April 2009. Reproduced with permission.