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.

Since 2007, the federal government has offered additional funding to universities based on student enrollments in topics such as mathematics; the contribution from mathematics alone for this is about $1.2 million a year for USQ. No portion of this funding seems to be passed on the department at present; when pressed about this in the media, the Dean of Sciences, Janet Verbyla stated that some of the money would eventually be distributed through cluster funding, though there are no details as to the extent of this funding.  [Incidentally, the current position of the federal Department of Education, as for instance stated in this news article, is that mathematics is not considered sufficiently vital to the region or to skill shortages that it would intervene.  As far as I can tell, there has been no position taken so far by the Queensland Department of Education.]

There are some other issues left unresolved as well. As pointed out by the NTEU, the original proposal was based on faulty numbers in which the teaching credit for a large service course (Foundations in Mathematics) was mistakenly assigned to another department. This was a significant error, representing perhaps $700,000 in annual funding for the department (and $1.6 million in income to USQ in all), and leading to the belief among some administration members that the department was not financially viable, when in fact it has been extremely profitable for the university. It is not entirely clear whether the administration has fully corrected for this. The NTEU has strongly urged a full and independent examination of the finances of the Faculty of Science, which so far has not occurred.

Of course, the department of mathematics and statistics is continuing to negotiate with the administration to resolve these issues. The situation is still not particularly satisfactory, though it is somewhat of an improvement from when the restructuring was first proposed; we hope to continue the pressure to ensure that mathematics is treated fairly, with all aspects of academic performance (including research and education quality, community outreach and service, and workload) being considered (the administration so far has been quite deliberately basing its plans purely on student enrollment numbers). Of course, any further updates on the situation will be posted here (and please feel free to comment here on any opinions, news, or other information you have on these issues).

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8 Responses

  1. [...] with some (as-yet-invisible) co-bloggers, on “Mathematics in Australia”. It includes an update on the situation at the University of Southern Queensland, where the mathematics department is [...]

  2. This was a significant error, representing perhaps $700,000 in annual funding for the department (and $1.6 million in income to USQ in all), and leading to the belief among some administration members that the department was not financially viable, when in fact it has been extremely profitable for the university. It is not entirely clear whether the administration has fully corrected for this.

    The whole story is so outrageous that it isn’t clear what they are trying to accomplish by gutting mathematics at USQ. This passage suggests that the mathematics department has fallen victim to bad mathematics! That would be ironic if it were the real explanation, but it’s difficult to believe that it’s as simple as that. Of course it is difficult to discern their motives if they are secretive. Or, whether or not they are secretive, it is difficult to interpret illogical motives. Even so, motive has been a weak link in the story.

    Okay, they do keep repeating that they are responding to student demand. The radio interview suggests the view that if the math department is “just” teaching a lot of service courses, then it isn’t a serious department, that it would need a lot of math majors specifically in order to justify its current size. Of course I think that that’s ridiculous. I also do not trust their conclusion that there are few math majors at USQ — a comparison could be useful perhaps. But can that at least be taken as their sincere view?

  3. I’m an ex-Toowoombaite who is a lowly lecturer at Imperial College (but in physics unfortunately, so I really doubt my opinion matters much to USQ!).

    However I have been told (unconfirmed) that these two mathematicians are also both ex-Toowoombanians, and since they are quite senior perhaps you should try to enlist their help:

    Peter Cameron
    http://www.maths.qmul.ac.uk/~pjc/

    Cheryl Praeger
    http://www.maths.uwa.edu.au/portal_memberdata/praeger

  4. Dear Greg: As far as I can tell, the motives are entirely based on a desire to reduce expenditure on staff salaries, and deciding that student enrollment numbers are the only basis with which to distribute the staff cuts; the concept that there are other contributions of a mathematics department whose value is not linearly proportional to the number of students taught or enrolled does not seem to be fully appreciated by the administration.

    Having more data would definitely help, though it is hard to obtain. Currently, USQ has the equivalent of about 20 full time mathematics students enrolling each year, and the department teaches about 400 students a year in service teaching; the total size of the student body is about 26,000. I don’t have much data for comparison: the international survey at

    http://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/documents/publications/stats/InternationalComparison.pdf

    shows that internationally, about 1% of all students at universities specialise in maths or statistics, whereas in Australia it is 0% after rounding – not exactly an informative statistic, there. (I am looking for better data, though.)

    Dear Tez: Thanks for the suggestions! Actually, Peter and Cheryl already signed the online petition, and Cheryl was extremely helpful (in her role on the executive committee of the IMU) in getting the IMU to lend their support. More generally, the response from the national and international mathematical community has been very strong.

  5. Having more data would definitely help, though it is hard to obtain. Currently, USQ has the equivalent of about 20 full time mathematics students enrolling each year, and the department teaches about 400 students a year in service teaching; the total size of the student body is about 26,000.

    Well, these are pretty low numbers compared to UC Davis, which has roughly the same number of undergraduates. We have about 300 math majors. That’s fairly high and our program is fairly expansive, but we could be quite strict and still have more than 100 majors. Our total enrollment in service courses is more than 4000 each quarter. I don’t know if your 400 means total service course enrollment or instead a service enrollment which is equivalent to 400 full-time students. Even if it is the latter, that is still less than half of what we have; students typically take four courses at once.

    I got this data by trotting downstairs. I imagine that your contacts would be happy to supply you with equivalent data for UCLA, and perhaps all of UC and even Cal State. It could be useful to compare California to Australia.

    Of course I’m against the Kevorkian solution to the problem of low math enrollment. But if the math service enrollment at USQ is only 400 student-courses (as opposed to full-time student equivalents), then I would agree that there is a problem that needs to be solved.

  6. Dear Greg,

    I have slightly more precise data now. At USQ, the number of EFTSL (equivalent full time student loads) enrolled in level 2 and 3 and masters courses (i.e. upper division) is currently 20, but is slowly growing; it lies on the borderline of USQ’s own “efficiency criteria”, although other departments with similar levels of enrollment have been designated as “initatives” and thus allowed to survive. At the same time, the number of EFTSL enrolled in service courses is 440. One reason the Australian numbers are lower than US numbers are that in Australia it is possible to complete a science major without ever taking a course from the maths department; for various reasons, mostly having to do with the way departments are funded, there is an incentive for science and engineering departments to do their maths courses in-house.

    The number of FTE staff at USQ is about 16, so the total staff:student ratio is about 28 (the national average in Australia is about 20, and the international average about 15-16, I believe).

    For comparison, at UCLA we have about 700-800 maths majors, out of a student body of about 25000. At the service teaching level, last quarter we taught 2500 students in 23 courses.

  7. I have better data for UC Davis too. The math department’s total teaching load is close to 26 FTE students per faculty member. Yes, the numerator of this ratio is higher than at USQ, but so is the denominator, because we have 40.5 FTE faculty. (That is not counting 8 postdocs and a number of lecturers.)

    It doesn’t look like USQ is only responding to student enrollment. Wikipedia says that USQ has 26174 students and 1396 staff. If that means academic staff, then it would be a student-to-faculty ratio of about 19. Even if they just allocated faculty based on FTE students, amateurish though that would be, they wouldn’t have an honest case to destroy the math department.

    No, it rather looks like that they were a priori hostile to mathematics, or at best, that they want to cut based on majors only. A special intellectual defense of mathematics is more than necessary in this case: An animus against specific subjects is an unaccountable way to run a university, and so is “get majors or get the ax, service be damned”. Although as you say, they do not apply the latter principle across the board.

  8. [...] “An update on mathematics, statistics, and computing at USQ“, Mathematics in Australia, 16 May 2008. [...]

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