Redundancies

Colleagues outside Australia have asked me to clarify for them the issue of redundancies in Australian universities. This is not easy to do, since different universities have different processes, generally negotiated with their union representatives as part of an individual university’s enterprise bargaining procedures. (Enterprise bargaining involves employees, typically although not necessarily via a trade union, negotiating an industrial agreement which covers salaries, working conditions, redundancy provisions and related issues.) A research paper published in 2004 reported that in 1994 “the issue of redundancy was covered in only 13% of agreements, yet by 1997… redundancy provisions were becoming a feature of many enterprise agreements.”

Redundancies can come about for a variety of reasons. When they are a consequence of performance-related issues the term “redundancy” often is not technically correct; “separation” may be more appropriate. However, “redundancy” can nevertheless be used in counselling sessions with the academic concerned, who may be informed that the actual grounds on which their separation is sought are budget-related, although performance-related issues can occupy a significant part of the discussion. Therefore, from a practical viewpoint it is not really possible to maintain the distinction; we shall use the term “redundancy” instead of “separation.”

Although, in universities, redundancy is a euphemism for getting rid of staff (both academic and non-academic) whom the university no longer wants, or needs, or can afford to keep, in the area of total quality management (TQM) — a field that should not be completely divorced from the experience of managers — “redundancy” and “redundant quality” have quite a different meaning. If a manufacturer’s aim is to produce items as inexpensively as possible, against pre-specified quality criteria, then redundant quality — that is, quality greater than the the specified level — should in theory be avoided, since it entails unduly high costs. On the other hand, redundant staff at an Australian university are often those who, in some respect, do not meet the quality requirements determined by managers.

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USQ, the supply of mathematics skills, and mathematics teacher training

A number of colleagues, both in Australia and abroad, have queried with me our reasons for taking such a strong position on the threats to dramatically cut mathematics at USQ. I should give a little background here, directly connecting the challenges facing USQ and a number of other universities (the University of New England is high on the radar in this respect), to the national skills shortage and the severe shortage of trained mathematics teachers in Australia. It will be clear to avid readers of Terry’s blogs that at least part of the material below is treated elsewhere, but it is probably beneficial to have a separate account of the issues on this particular site.

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Lost opportunities sadden maths whiz

Last Thursday, there was a two-page spread in the Toowoomba Chronicle concerning various aspects of the USQ restructuring proposal. One page was devoted to the impact of the proposal on students in the Bachelor of Music (which is being discontinued, being replaced by a less specific “Bachelor of Creative Arts”), in an article by Merryl Miller entitled “Low note: music students no longer singing uni’s praises“. The other page contains an article by Lacey Burley, entitled “Lost opportunities sadden maths whiz“, is centred around Adam Walsh, the ten-year old in southern Queensland who was taking maths classes at USQ and working towards a Bachelor of Science degree there, although with the impending staff cuts (and the concomitant increase in staff workload) it is unlikely that the remaining faculty be able to accommodate Adam’s needs.

The Chronicle also reported on Adam last month. As reported in that article, Adam wrote to me back in March concerning the cuts; his letter was not the only one I received alerting me to the crisis, but it was one that resonated particularly with me, given that his education experience is very similar to my own (though in my case, the cutbacks to my mathematics department at Flinders did not occur until after I had completed my degree).

(Thanks to Lacey Burley for the page proofs, and for permission to post the articles, and to Adam Walsh and his father for permission to publicise their story.)

Gazette Issue 2 (May 2008) now online

Issue 2 of the Gazette is now online.

In Maths Matters, previous Gazette editor, Jan de Gier, shares his thoughts on the challenges that young academics face to establish a career.

In the Communications section, you will find a paper on the MVT by John Koliha and his student Peng Zhang — a follow-up on their previous paper ‘Rolle to Cauchy’. Ricardo Simeoni writes about noble gas magic numbers and Kevin Burrage describes the doctoral programs at Oxford University.

The winner of the $50 book voucher for Puzzle Corner 5 is Konrad Pilch from the University of Adelaide — congratulations! And in this issue we have not only Norman Do’s next Puzzle Corner, but also his B.H. Neumann Prize winning paper on moduli spaces, and technical papers by Mike Hirschhorn, Gerry Myerson, and Joe Gani and Randall Swift.

A list of books available for review has just been published on the Gazette website. For automatic notification of news posts on the Gazette page you may wish to subscribe to the RSS feed.

Happy Reading!

Student-teacher ratios

According to Universities Australia (using data supplied by DEST), student-teacher ratios at Australian universities have risen from 13-14 in 1990 to over 20 by 2005; net numbers of staff have grown slowly over this period, but not nearly as fast as student enrolments. (Some related data by Universities Australia can also be found at this page.) For comparison, international averages of such ratios are about 16-17 (see page 16 of this report; in the University of California system, the ratios are about 17-18. There may be differences in methodology across countries, though, that make it difficult to make exact comparisons).

At USQ, with approximately 16 FTE (full time equivalent) staff teaching mathematics and statistics, and 440 EFTSL (equivalent full time student loads) being taught (mostly in service courses), the student-teacher ratio is approximately 28. With five staff cuts in these divisions still planned (and the two new positions being non-teaching in nature), this ratio will almost certainly increase.

Shortage of specialist maths teachers, and the Gillard interview

There is a companion article in the Australian to the one pointed out by Peter yesterday by Andrew Trounson, entitled “Shortage of specialist maths teachers“. Apparently, the long-running shortage of trained maths teachers in Australia is beginning to have a non-trivial impact on high schools, with some schools forced to cancel advanced maths programs purely due to lack of qualified teachers. So far, core maths teaching at the secondary level is still reasonably strong in Australia, but this may not necessarily be the case in the future (after all, the same could have been said at the tertiary level just two decades ago).

The article cites the report “The preparation of maths teachers in Australia” from June 2006 by the Australian Council of Deans of Science, which reported that over three quarters of high schools are currently having difficulties finding qualified maths teachers for their schools, and that the situation was likely to worsen in the near future due to a wave of retirements of senior teachers.

A transcript of the interview of the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, that was referenced in yesterday’s article has been made available; I’ve placed some key excerpts from it below the fold.

(Thanks to Billy Tao and Jan Thomas for the links.)

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USQ staff cuts begin

According to today’s Toowoomba Chronicle, the staff cuts for the current round of the USQ “Realising our Potential” initiative have begin, with four forced redundancies in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences, and with 17 further “voluntary” redundancies sought in academic staff across the university, including three positions in mathematics and two in statistics (though there is also one new mathematics teaching liason position and one statistics consulting position that these staff can apply for). There does now appear to be some commitment by the administration to retain the undergraduate maths and stats major (though not the masters program), although with the staff cuts there is likely to be quite severe teaching loads on the remaining staff (the two new positions are non-teaching; also, six staff cuts are planned to the computing division which has shared teaching duties in the past, though many of these cuts will be by attrition as several staff in that division have already quit USQ).

As indicated in the above article, the pressure from the mathematics community and its supporters (including, crucially, some elected officials) has had some success in mitigating the worst effects of the originally planned cuts, but the results are still decidedly mixed. The situation is still rather fluid though; I will post further developments here as they come in.

Best brains won’t make the numbers

There’s an excellent extended article in the Australian today by Andrew Trounson entitled “Best brains won’t make the numbers“. It covers the growing shortage in Australia of qualified maths teachers, as well as of other professions requiring quantitative thinking in maths and statistics. While the primary and secondary schools in Australia are still maintaining high standards of maths literacy, there are real problems now with the quality and extent of maths education at the tertiary level (the situation with USQ being a particularly extreme example).

One encouraging item in the article, though, was that the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, has taken a position on the fact that increased funding for mathematics and statistics has been diverted by university administrators to other priorities:

Yesterday, Education Minister Julia Gillard put universities on notice that the Government will hold them accountable on money for particular policy aims such as boosting mathematics and statistics.

“Government holds universities accountable for the funds we supply universities and you should expect to see accountability measures in that area of the budget and in relation to budget funding generally,” Gillard says in response to questions about funding for mathematics and statistics departments.

The Government is considering the possibility of funding accountability through a new long-term funding system known as compacts that is being looked at by Denise Bradley’s higher education review.

But a new system isn’t expected to be in place until 2010.

More generally, it does seem that reform of the way Australian universities are funded is the only real long-term solution to the current state of affairs.

An update on mathematics, statistics, and computing at USQ

No discussion of current affairs in mathematics in Australia would be complete without mentioning the state of affairs at the University of Southern Queensland, which as part of its restructuring proposal entitled “Realising our Potential” had planned to eliminate several majors including mathematics, statistics, physics, and chemistry, as well as all non-service courses in these areas, and cut staff at the Department of Mathematics and Computing by 12 members (almost 50%). More details on this are at the campaign page to support maths at USQ, my own post on this at my other blog, and at my editorial at the Funneled Web.

There have been a number of developments since the campaign was launched on 5 April, with decidedly mixed results. On the one hand, the campaign has attracted a broad and strong response, not only from the Australian mathematics and statistics community, but also from the other sciences, the international community, industry, media, and from the local government and community. For instance, the online petition to support USQ now has over 900 signatures, including the Nobel Laureate in Economics Clive Granger, the former Dean of Sciences at USQ Hugh Avey, and many other leaders in Australia and overseas, as well as many staff, students, parents, and other members of the USQ community; a selected sample of such comments can be found here and here. (The entire petition was presented to the USQ administration on 14 April.) The local member of parliament for Toowoomba South (where USQ is located), the Hon. Mike Horan, also gave a speech in support of mathematics at USQ in the Queensland Parliament, as well as on ABC radio. There have also been strong letters of support from many organisations, ranging from the Statistical Society of Australia Inc. to the Toowoomba and Queensland maths teachers associations, to the International Mathematical Union, to the National Tertiary Education Union. There has been a fair amount of newspaper media coverage as well, for instance at the local Toowoomba Chronicle (see for instance this two-page article from 8 April) and at the Australian (see e.g. this article from 1 May), as well as an editorial by the former Vice-Chancellor at USQ, Peter Swannell.

This strong response does appear to have had some impact on the USQ administration as it revised its restructuring proposals (and extended its deadlines for finalising them). In the latest version of proposal, released on 1 May, some additional funding has been located by the administration, to reduce the net cuts at the Department of Mathematics and Computing from 12 to 8 (with 11 staff cuts being offset by 3 new specialist positions in teaching and outreach), with mathematics and statistics in particular shedding 5 jobs instead of 8; nevertheless the department is bearing by far the largest burden of the cuts to the Faculty of Science (in fact, it is absorbing 8 of the 7 net cuts, with the remaining departments in fact having a net increase of one staff member). Majors in mathematics, statistics, chemistry, and physics are not automatically eliminated in this new proposal, but are to be subject to some unspecified “review” to determine their “viability”. It has been difficult to obtain clarification of what this actually means, though when the administration was pressed by the media (for instance here or here) they have at least appeared to make efforts to retain it. However, in view of the staff cuts (which will be increasing the teaching workload on the staff to an elevated level) it is difficult to see how a viable maths major can be formed without reducing the cuts further.

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ICE-EM mathematics textbooks review

The International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM) has recently completed a full set of mathematics textbooks and related teaching resources (homework sheets, CD-ROMs, etc.), entitled “ICE-EM Mathematics“, that covers the transition period between primary and secondary education in Australia (or more precisely, from Upper Primary to Year 10). This package has been designed by professional mathematicians (including my former undergraduate advisor, Garth Gaudry) in collaboration with experienced teachers in primary and secondary mathematics, and in accordance with Australian state and territory maths curriculum requirements. Some more information about this package, including sample chapters and homework sheets, can be found here.

Recently, I was given a copy of the textbooks (there are six two-volume books in all, one for each year of schooling) to review for ICE-EM. The entire package spans about 5,000 pages in 12 volumes; my review focuses on three representative volumes, Transition 1A (that covers the first half of Year 5), Secondary 2B (that covers the second half of Year 8), and Secondary 4B (that covers the last half of Year 10).

Disclaimer: Of course, I am reviewing these books not as a primary or secondary school educator, but instead as a professional academic mathematician and tertiary mathematics educator. Nevertheless, in my experience with students at the tertiary level, I have certainly seen how any gaps or deficiencies in primary or secondary maths education can show up to cause significant conceptual difficulties at the tertiary level, and it is with this perspective that I am approaching my review of these texts.

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