Maths Matters

[This opinion piece is being submitted to the "Maths Matters" column of the Gazette of the Australian Mathematical Society.]

On 17 March 2008, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) at Toowoomba announced proposals to cut staff at the Department of Mathematics and Computing (which consists of the disciplines of mathematics, statistics, and computing) by almost 50%, eliminate all non-service teaching classes from the mathematics curriculum, and also eliminate the mathematics, statistics, physics, and chemistry majors at USQ.  These proposals were part of their rationalisation program entitled ““Realising our Potential“.  This program was not initiated in response to any immediate financial crisis at USQ – the university recently reported a doubling in its annual profit, to $10.3 million – but out of a desire to significantly change the spending profile of the university, in particular to reduce the proportion of university expenditure going towards staff.  The staff reductions in each department were not to be based on research performance, teaching, or service, but were instead to be determined on purely by the student enrolments in the majors of that department.

The Department of Mathematics and Computing, despite holding steady in its enrolments, with a strong record of research and teaching excellence, and earning a significant profit for the university (especially when counting the roughly $1.2 million annually in additional federal support to USQ associated to student enrollments in mathematics), bore a disproportionately high share of the burden of staff cuts in the initial proposal.  For instance, of the 15 net positions to be cut from the Faculty of Science, 12 were to come from this department, and 8 in particular from the 14 staff in the divisions of mathematics and statistics.  (Several other departments with much smaller enrollments were designated as “initiatives” and spared the worst of the cuts, and even received increased allocations in some cases.)

Staff cuts, particularly in mathematics and the “hard” sciences, are unfortunately an all too common occurrence these days in Australia, as well as overseas.  But the cuts at USQ were particularly severe, and would have severely impacted maths education and training in the region, as discussed by Peter Hall in the President’s Column in the previous issue of the Gazette.  Initial correspondence with the USQ administration on these matters did not get very far, and so in the beginning of April, I and several other Australian mathematicians launched an online campaign, at http://terrytao.wordpress.com/support-usq-maths/, to urge the USQ administration to work with the department to retain its mathematics training and education capability as much as possible.

The support garnered by these efforts was remarkably strong and broad; for instance, of the thousand or so signatures collected on the online petition, the Australian mathematics community was joined by overseas mathematicians, as well as leaders in industry and education in Australia, university administrators, students and their parents, and even a Nobel Laureate.  The petition can be found online at http://terrytao.wordpress.com/about/petition-to-support-maths-statistics-and-computing-at-usq/; the many thoughtful and impassioned comments left there in support of the petition are well worth reading.  Beyond the online campaign, there was also a significant amount of sympathetic local and national newspaper and radio coverage, as well as the strong support of the local MP for USQ’s Toowoomba South district, the International Mathematical Union, the National Tertiary Education Union, the local mathematics teachers associations, the Statistical Society of Australia Inc., and many other institutions.  (Their letters of support can be found on the campaign page listed above.)

In response to this local, national, and international pressure, and about a month after the beginning of the online campaign, the administration did revise its initial proposals, finding additional financial resources to soften (though not eliminate) the impact of the cuts to mathematics and statistics; in particular, the eight staff cuts in these divisions was reduced to three (which have since been realised through voluntary redundancy packages), and the maths major was to be reviewed for “viability”, rather than to be eliminated immediately.  The proposal still had significant negative aspects, in particular demanding an unusually high teaching workload and staff:student ratio for the remaining staff in the department, and mathematics at USQ has still become weaker than it was before the cuts were proposed, but the outcome is still an improvement over the original restructuring plan.

What lessons are to be drawn from this experience?  On the one hand, I would say that there are some unexpected reservoirs of support for higher mathematics in the wider community, particularly with regard to its role in mathematics education and in providing key skills to industry.  For instance, spurred by many calls from constituents on this issue, the local MP for Toowoomba South, Mike Horan, spoke in the Queensland Parliament on April 17 concerning the original proposal:

… I believe in putting forward this draft proposal [USQ] has made a major mistake in making the cutbacks to mathematics and statistics…  If there is one thing of concern to our nation today, it is the lack of mathematicians in universities and to provide teaching in our high schools as basis for science courses and to meet the challenges that are coming in terms of new technology systems, climate change, changes in demographics, changes in computer systems and so forth …

The people who spoke to me were teachers, academics, high school students, and many concerned people in Toowoomba.  This is a draft proposal.  I would ask the university to overturn it, particularly in the subjects of mathematics and statistics …

I personally also received many offers of assistance from mathematicians, mathematics organisations and other individuals across the world, many of whom wrote on their own initative to the USQ administration or to local government officials; at every mathematics conference I attended, I was asked on the latest news on USQ and on the state of mathematics in Australia.  One common sentiment in these conversations was that it was important to stand up and fight these sorts of battles wherever they occur, as a matter of principle as well as for the stake in the immediate outcome; there are all too many stories in many countries of higher education in the mathematics and the sciences being eroded due to a real or perceived lack of a strong defense by the academic community.

On the other hand, it seems that community support, while extremely valuable, is not by itself sufficient to prevent unwise decisions by university administrations, or to coherently make a strong case for the need and value of higher mathematics in Australia.  For this, an organised and sustained long-term effort at many levels is needed.  The USQ campaign managed to achieve a remarkable amount in the month or so that it lasted, but it would have perhaps have been even more effective had it been initiated earlier, so that one had more time to communicate the message and to coordinate efforts more with the broader science and education community and with the USQ maths department and other local stakeholders.

The mathematics organisations in Australia, such as the Australian Mathematical Society and the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, already do a lot of fine work behind the scenes in collecting accurate information on the state of mathematics in Australia, and reporting this information and their recommendations to state and federal governments and the media, as well as to the Gazette of course.  But it seems that more could be done to raise broader awareness of the many issues facing Australian mathematics today, ranging from the need to provide mathematical and statistical skills to the workforce, to standards for mathematics education in schools, to the need to recognise and support research and teaching excellence, or to encourage more students to acquire mathematics literacy or higher mathematical skills.    As one experimental step in this direction, Philip Broadbridge, Peter Hall, Birgit Loch, and I have launched a new blog, at http://austmaths.wordpress.com, dedicated to reporting on and discussing these sorts of issues, as well as anticipating (and hopefully, averting) any future crises that may arise.  More generally, given the support for mathematics present at many (though, unfortunately, not all) levels in Australia, one can hope to reverse the slow declines in higher mathematics that have occurred at universities across the country in recent years; but it is likely to require a sustained amount of attention, effort, and outreach to accomplish this.

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One Response

  1. It certainly seems as though we need to do more to maintain a consistent background message regarding the importance of mathematics to Australia. From there we can launch off to deal with future crises. There is a natural division of such a message, first taking the message of the usefulness of mathematics to the general public, second reaching out to school leavers regarding studying maths at a university level and finally taking our message to politicians. On the first point the USQ crisis showed that maths can command media attention. A quick look, however, at the list of “maths in the media” provided on this blog however highlights a problem; most articles appear in the Australian particularly in the Higher Education Supplement. We need to work at diversifying our exposure to the media, not everyone reads the Australian’s Higher Education Supplement.

    There are also premade opportunities to engage the media such as National Science Week. A look at this year’s program for the Science Festival in Canberra reveals little by the way of mathematical input. We need to take advantage of such events.

    Secondly we need to be a lot more proactive about reaching school leavers. Many careers councillors are unaware of the variety of careers that require a strong mathematical background. While excellent career material can be found for example on the ICE-EM website, used at career fairs and open days this material requires students actually seek out the mathematics table. We should be targeting careers councillors and maths teachers with messages about these jobs. One possible way to do this would be for local maths departments to run events at the beginning of the year for these teachers. Such an event might have a short talk on the maths career possibilities followed by a chance for the teachers to meet faculty and students. Finally teachers could be sent back with the aforementioned material to place in their career rooms.

    Of course these two parts will interact with each other from time to time. UAC (university entrance) admissions are opening soon and between now and the end of September year 12 students around Australia will have careers on their minds. At this time (and also in the lead up to the beginning of the academic year when students pick individual subjects) we should be targeting the press with information about maths careers.

    Finally we need to keep reminding politicians that they need to support mathematics at all levels. If we have strong public support this will be much easier. Institutions such as AustMS and AMSI are well placed to continue doing this however there are also opportunities for individual academics and departments to be involved by keeping local members in touch and by participating in events such as science meets parliament.

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