Maths majors in Australia in decline

Over at the Funneled Web, fellow contributor Peter Hall reports on the continued decline in the number of maths majors in Australian universities, and a related decline in the number of high school students taking advanced maths courses.

[Update, Dec 9: By coincidence, the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) on fourth and eighth grade mathematics ability was released today.  According to the report, fourth grade achievement in Australian students has improved somewhat (just behind the United States, Germany, and Denmark, and just ahead of Hungary, Italy, and Australia), but eighth grade achievement has slipped (below Armenia, but above Sweden).]

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6 Responses

  1. You guys might have noticed that the world is in the midst of a triple crisis: (a) An energy crisis [peak oil just past, peak fossil fuels in a decade or 2]; (b) A financial crisis [debt replaced real growth as oil production faltered, then credit collapsed]; (c) An environmental crisis [need to get off coal even sooner than it runs out].

    A key plank in any plan to address this should be: An open vigorous well-funded on-going investigation of the relevant facts by teams of mathematically-competent engineers and scientists (with legal powers similar to a Royal Commission). We just can’t afford any more stupid mistakes like the hydrogen economy and biofuels. You will guess that I think some of the current proposals are in this category.

    Why is this post relevant? Well I reckon it would make a great impression on young minds to see explicitly mathematically competent people leading the investigation into how to plan for the country’s future. There must be quite a few who are wondering whether they really want to go into finance :-).

    How about we get up a petition on this. To see what can be done in this area by one mathematically competent person acting alone, see Prof David MacKay’s book at Prof MacKay is the head of the Inference Group in Cambridge Uni’s Physics Dept.

  2. One thing that does NOT attract mathematics majors is very few of the mathematics faculty at Australian universities have any industrial experience as practicing mathematicians. A law school whose lecturers had never presented a case to a judge and jury would also have trouble attracting students. Likewise, a medical school whose lecturers had never treated actual patients would see little demand, so why is it such a surprise that mathematics programs taught by faculty of little recent practical commercial experience may be viewed as lacking in relevance?

    This is not just a problem with Australian academic mathematics, engineering and the other sciences are also mostly detached from the reality of the commercial world.

  3. Rich,

    What you mean by ‘practicing mathematician’ must not be what everybody else means by the term, which is a mathematician who regularly presents new results in the usual forums.

    Indeed, most of what can be regarded as mathematics proper is quite removed from the ‘commercial world’ and is of little interest to anyone there (and vice versa). This is not to say that full on mathematical training is not extremely beneficial to people looking to work in applied fields, be they economists or engineers, but it is actually the abstract nature of the subject which you so dislike that is its most valuable characteristic.

    Mathematics taught in applied courses is too often insufficient to treat the models used as anything other than a collection of receipies and students neither gain a solid understanding nor are able to follow current literature. Experience in dealing with abstract mathematical objects one would get in a pure maths degree would considerably improve their ability to deal confidently with complex models and hence both their potential for innovation and the commercial value of their education.

    And to teach abstract mathematical courses I would much rather have a ‘practicing mathematician’ in the above sense rather than someone who was for the last 10 years running regressions in insurance company X.


  4. With a background that includes a degree in ‘pure mathematics’ as well as a Ph.D. in Engineering Science, along with 30+ years as a consulting mathematician, I certainly recognize the value of abstract mathematics. The anomaly in Australia is almost no academics have any commercial or industrial experience. This is not the case in most of Europe, America, or Asia.

    I can see some faculty not having a commercial background, but entire departments? I can not see that being attractive to students.

  5. Rich,

    I see where you are coming from, but I think a better solution would be to encourage students to enroll in double degrees (indeed these are perhaps the only good feature of the Australian system), and to allow them to make connections with applications themselves. What sort of industrial experience can someone teaching algebraic geometry possibly have?


  6. DS,

    I agree, double degrees should be encouraged. No doubt many of such students will make the connections to applications themselves, and possibly even discover new ones.

    Right now I have been intensively updating my knowledge in Category Theory which I have been applying to composition of new music, particularly for video/movie soundtracks. It just goes to show how hard it is (perhaps impossible) to predict what areas of Mathematics are going to be important or applied.

    Curiously enough, when I was in my teens I studied with some of the ‘founders of Category Theory’ such as Lawvere, Schanuel, and others. Now I wish I had paid more attention!

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