ERA results for mathematical sciences in Australia

The 2010 ERA (Excellence in Research Australia) results were released by the ARC on 31 January 2011. Comprehensive reports are available from the ARC ERA 2010 webpage.

Forty-one tertiary institutions submitted research outputs to be evaluated. Out of these, 17 did not receive an assessment in the mathematical sciences. This means that these 17 institutions did not have enough research publications in mathematical sciences in the six-year reference period to meet the ERA minimum threshold. What is this threshold? It is a minimum of 50 research outputs (or 30 outputs in the case of pure mathematics) in the reference period: 01 January 2003 – 31 December 2008.

To understand this a little more, consider a fictional mathematics department with ten research active staff members publishing one paper each per year in a mathematical journal. This department would have 60 research outputs over the reference period and so would receive an ERA assessment. The reality in Australia is that many tertiary institutions do not have such numbers of mathematically active staff.

The evaluations were carried out within bins called Field of Research (FoR) Codes. The 2-digit FoR code 01 represents mathematical sciences as a whole, within which 4-digit FoR codes represent pure mathematics 0101, applied mathematics 0102, numerical and computational mathematics 0103, statistics 0104, mathematical physics 0105 and other mathematical sciences 0199.

The FoR-based system complicates conclusions because many mathematicians may publish in journals that are codified to other fields (e.g., bioinformaticians may publish in medical and biological journals), while many scientists who do not see themselves as mathematicians may publish in journals codified to mathematics (e.g., engineers may have published in applied mathematical journals).

In addition to the 17 institutions mentioned above, 1 received an assessment at the most macroscopic 2-digit mathematics FoR code, i.e., 01, with no assessment in any four-digit mathematics FoR code. An additional 5 institutions received an assessment in only one of the four-digit mathematical FoR codes along with an assessment at the two-digit FoR level. Only 12 institutions over all received an assessment in the FoR code 0104 (statistics).

The ARC is hurrying onto the next round of ERA assessments. ERA2012 will assess the output of staff counted on the census date 31 March 2011, whose output appeared in the reference period 1 January 2005 – 31 December 2010.

Access to mathematics is vital for equity

In an opinion piece “Access to mathematics is vital for equity” for Australasian Science, Jan Thomas writes on how shortages of mathematics teachers has led to lack of access for many students, particularly (but not exclusively) in rural and low-income areas, to a quality mathematics education.

[Via the Funneled Web.]

The State of Mathematical Sciences in Australia

Hyam Rubinstein wrote an opinion piece recently on the Funneled Web on “The State of Mathematical Sciences in Australia“, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Australian mathematics today.  Strengths include internationally recognised research excellence, and a strong tradition in mathematics competition; weaknesses include severe shortages of maths and stats-trained graduates in the workforce (both in teaching and in industry), and a lack of a visible “maths industry” lobby at the federal level.

Rebuilding the mathematical sciences

In an article today for ScienceAlert entitled “Rebuilding the mathematical sciences“, Hyam Rubinstein writes on the recent decline in mathematics education in Australia, and on how to rebuild it, in particular promoting the National Maths Strategy recently completed by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.

(Thanks to Jan Thomas for the link.)

The National “Numeracy” Review

[This post is authored by Judy Mousley - Ed.]

I was asked by Terry to write a guest article for the blog in my capacity as President of MERGA, but the words below have been written in a personal capacity. I encourage other MERGA members to add their thoughts, as those below are certainly not representative of anyone’s ideas but mine.

Another “numeracy” review!

The report of the National Numeracy Review (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008), becoming known as the Stanley report after the chair of the review panel, is yet another federal effort that will have little impact, largely because it has little to say that provides specific direction for the teaching and learning of mathematics. It includes many motherhood statements that have been used throughout my 15 years or primary and secondary teaching and 25 years as an academic, without articulating how curriculum and assessment guidelines can give teachers new understandings and actions that would be needed to bring about significant change. Merely stating that teaching people to be “truly numerate, involves considerably more than the acquisition of mathematical routines and algorithms” fails to challenge the status quo in Australian schools where teachers spend most of their time focusing the acquisition of mathematical routines and algorithms.

The report wastes much space discussing the meaning of “numeracy”. This is not unusual, as attempts to define the term have been made in at least five national reports in the last decade. In most other countries, the term is hardly used and people do not know what numeracy is. Those few countries where the term is used, such as England (where it was concocted in 1959 as an analogue of literacy), have varied interpretations (see, for example, Commonwealth of Australia, 2000; Groves, Mousley & Forgasz, 2003; and Willis, 1998). The Stanley report claims that numeracy is the ability to use mathematics but, as it points out, most people think of numeracy as “the basics”. This lack of clarity and agreement illustrates the folly of using “numeracy” to name (and hence shape) a major review of mathematics teaching and learning. It must be recognised by federal and state governments that it is Mathematics that is taught in schools, mathematics curricula that state or federal bodies need to outline for the use of teachers and textbook authors, and mathematics education that needs content and time guidelines. The use of any term other than “mathematics” in reviews, guidelines, professional development and the media muddies the picture for teachers, curriculum developers, parents and others. While Australians are discussing what “numeracy” means, the rest of the world is focusing on better ways to teach mathematics, the content of teacher education courses and the time given to mathematics in these, as well as what research tells us about children understanding and learning mathematics. The 2003 TIMSS results showed that Australian results have slipped down from their comparatively high position, and I await the release of the next round of results at the end of 2008 with interest.

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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.

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Mathematics at Flinders

In the last two decades at Australian universities, departments have primarily been funded using formulae that are based to a large extent on the number of Australian and foreign students that are enrolled in their majors, or are taught by their service courses. As such, there is a tremendous pressure on administrations and departments to increase enrollments at any cost – for instance by lowering course requirements, or removing requirements involving other departments and replacing them with in-house substitutes. As one consequence on this focus on enrollments, other factors such as research and teaching quality, or the needs of industry or the community, are considered secondary or are neglected altogether. Another effect is that department funding is subject to short-term fluctuations based on changes in student demand. [In contrast, in other countries such as the US, funding is usually not determined by rigid formulae, but instead changes slowly from historical levels in response to a combination of all the factors listed above.]

These factors have played a significant role in the recent USQ crisis, and as indicated in a letter to the most recent issue of the Gazette, have also had a detrimental effect on mathematics at the University of New England. In this post I would like to describe how this structure had largely destroyed mathematics at my old alma mater, Flinders University, in which the number of full time mathematics staff has dwindled from 19 during my time there in 1989-1992 to just three today, although a rebuilding effort is now being planned there, as reported last week in the Australian.

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