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).
Filed under: USQ