AUSTRALIA: Mathematics in crisis

It has been described as "the handmaiden of the sciences", but the state of mathematical sciences in Australia has deteriorated to a dangerous level. A report released last week says universities should provide additional mathematics-enabling courses and improve co-operation between education and mathematics faculties.

Published by the Group of Eight research intensive universities, the report arises from a review by a group of senior mathematicians of the state of mathematics in schools and universities.

It was chaired by former University of Sydney Vice-chancellor Professor Gavin Brown and commissioned by the Go8 vice-chancellors last year because of serious concerns about the number and quality of students entering university courses requiring strong quantitative skills.

The report highlights some startling statistics:

* From 2001 to 2007 the number of students enrolled in a mathematics major in Australian universities declined by 15%.
* The number of students taking advanced mathematics at high school dropped by 27% between 1995 and 2007.
* Demand for mathematics and statistics graduates is predicted to grow by 3.5% a year till 2013.

The problems facing mathematics faculties arise from the way the subject is taught. One survey found that only one in three students in the second year of secondary school said they enjoyed maths.

The review report concluded that universities could not ignore the downward change in mathematics preparedness affecting entering students. "In the short term, there appear to be only two conceivable responses: the provision of enabling (that is remedial) programmes and the lowering of standards," the report states.

Among its seven recommendations, the report says the Go8 should:

* Encourage dialogue between faculties of education and mathematics departments "with a view to introducing a component in the primary training programme giving mathematical confidence and resources to future teachers".
*It should support the raising of mathematics and science awareness in the community, covering all years of high school. This includes extra-curricular resource provision.
* Each Go8 vice-chancellor should review service teaching arrangements especially the internal funding model which drives them. Insight should be shared.
* The Go8, sharing expertise already gained, should develop a systematic structure of enabling programmes to counter the drop in students entering with low mathematics experience.
* The Go8 should encourage research networking within Australia, not confined to its own universities.
* The Go8 should pay particular attention to statistics, the ongoing consulting needs within the universities, the training of the next generation and the recovery of a strong research culture.