USQ, the supply of mathematics skills, and mathematics teacher training

A number of colleagues, both in Australia and abroad, have queried with me our reasons for taking such a strong position on the threats to dramatically cut mathematics at USQ. I should give a little background here, directly connecting the challenges facing USQ and a number of other universities (the University of New England is high on the radar in this respect), to the national skills shortage and the severe shortage of trained mathematics teachers in Australia. It will be clear to avid readers of Terry’s blogs that at least part of the material below is treated elsewhere, but it is probably beneficial to have a separate account of the issues on this particular site.

Australia faces a crisis in the supply of mathematics skills. When I left school in 1969 there were two careers to which an Australian with mathematics talents could generally aspire: becoming either an actuary or a school mathematics teacher. However, within about a decade the situation began to change. Growth of the IT industry, and the increasing mathematical sophistication of banks, finance companies and government departments, created many new opportunities. Today, even in a country like Australia whose balance of trade relies largely on commodity exports, all manner of employers in business, industry and government require serious mathematics skills.

The Australian Government’s Audit of Science, Engineering and Technology Skills, generally referred to as the Skills Audit and released in 2006, estimated that demand for mathematics skills grew at 52.1% in the eight-year period up to 2005, and forecast that it would grow at around 33% in the next eight years. These figures correspond to annual growth rates of 5.4% and 3.5%, respectively. However, a review of the mathematical sciences, partly funded by the Australian Government and reporting to the Australian Academy of Sciences in late 2006, noted that the number of mathematical sciences graduates, and the capacity of the nation to train mathematical scientists, were both falling. Data gathered by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, directly from mathematical sciences departments in Australian universities, confirm that this decline is continuing. In fact, as the nation’s demand continues to increase, the decline in mathematics skills seems to be accelerating.

Against this background the Skills Audit noted that “recruiting difficulties exist in respect to high level mathematical and statistical skills.” The audit gave particular emphasis to projections that “in the sciences, [the] strongest annual job growth between 2003–04 and 2011–12 [would occur] for mathematicians, statisticians and actuaries…” In particular, the growth in demand for mathematicians and statisticians would outpace that for engineers, where there are well-known and chronic skills shortages in Australia. However, mathematics skills are increasingly difficult to find.

There is evidence that these problems are causing employers of mathematicians to overlook Australia when they seek countries in which to invest. Of course, it is virtually impossible to find reliable data on this sort of thing, but there is significant anecdotal evidence. For example, back in 2003, when the problem of finding mathematics and statistics skills was less acute than it is today, the Head of Biometrics (Asia Pacific Region) for the Hoffman La Roche group wrote to the Australian Government as follows:

In 1997, the Pharma Development Management Team of Hoffman La Roche, based in Basel, Switzerland, decided to establish a Biometrics Development site in the Asia Pacific Region. Australia was chosen as the successful country, because we were known to have many excellent statisticians, excellent educational institutions, and a stable political system…

The viability of this industry is now threatened because Australia is failing to produce sufficient statistics graduates… It is well known in the statistics profession that New Zealand continues to produce many statistics graduates, and Australia very few. In the late 1980s and early 90s Monash University graduated 10-20 students a year with Honours in Statistics. In recent years this number has been less than a few. This is a catastrophic decline, which is reflected at many Universities around Australia.

Only three of the major pharmaceutical companies have so far chosen to establish large Biometrics departments in Australia. We cannot expect other companies to follow this example, if Australia cannot supply sufficient statisticians to meet the needs of these leading companies. In fact the viability of these three established departments will be questioned if we have to recruit statisticians from overseas.

Linking problems such as this to school mathematics education, the Skills Audit highlighted the “declining proportion of participation in the enabling sciences and advanced mathematics in schools and in post-school settings.” In particular, data analysis in the Skills Audit “showed a declining number of undergraduate domestic [i.e. non-foreign] students in mathematical sciences.” Commenting on the “challenges in building Australia’s science, research and innovation capacity for the future,” the Audit noted that “an adequate supply of well qualified science and mathematics teachers is a key to success.”

Similar comments have been made in many other reviews. For example, the Australian Council of Deans of Science reported in 2006 that:

Three in four schools reported difficulties recruiting suitably qualified mathematics teachers… The shortage of available mathematics teachers was seen as a relatively recent and growing problem, predicted to worsen as experienced teachers retire in coming years.

The 2006 review of the mathematical sciences noted that:

Increasingly, high school mathematics is being taught by teachers with inadequate mathematical training.

Nationally, the percentage of Year 12 students taking higher level — advanced and intermediate — mathematics fell from 41% in 1995 to 34% in 2004. This is limiting the level of training that can be supplied in undergraduate degree programs such as commerce, engineering and science.

Last year the Productivity Commission, an independent branch of the Australian Government, and housed in Treasury, released an influential report entitled “Public Support for Science and Innovation.” (Here, “public support” is intended to be interpreted as “support from the public purse,” not “support from the man and woman in the street.”) The Commission went further than most other commentators, proposing pay rises for mathematics and science teachers as a way of overcoming the problems:

In the case of science and mathematics teachers, shortages have… been accommodated by using teachers without adequate skills in these areas. This may adversely affect student performance and engagement and decrease future university enrolments in the sciences. In teaching, price signals have not been able to respond to shortages due to the inflexible pay levels and structures. This should be subject to reform.

Australian news media are increasingly interested in these stories, and report them reasonably frequently. See, for example, this article in the Australian from 21 May, or from the Financial Review from 5 May.

It is for these reasons that the problems at USQ are of paramount interest to the Australian community of mathematicians and statisticians. At present we are caught in a spiral, where the number of students studying university mathematics or statistics decreases every year, and the number of young men and women training to be mathematics teachers declines too. Therefore the number of school students capable of studying mathematics or statistics at university, at anything but the lowest level, goes down annually. However, outside our universities the demand for professional mathematicians and statisticians is increasing at 3 to 4% annually. That is faster than the increase in demand for engineers — mechanical, industrial, civil, etc. This issue is one to which USQ is central, through the provision of mathematics training for future school teachers. Indeed, one of the strengths of USQ has been providing teacher training. However, the proposed cuts to mathematics and statistics at that university would make it impossible for USQ to contribute meaningfully in the mathematics area. If that were the case, the downwards spiral would take yet another significant turn.

7 Responses

  1. You say there is a shortage of maths people in Australia. But the law of supply of demand suggests that, like (medical) doctors, the wages paid would be sky high if there was a shortage. This is why medical faculties, presumably, have no wish to churn out an oversupply of doctors.

    Isn’t training more mathematicians an example of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”?

    When I see people talking about a scarcity of workers, I suspect a hidden agenda to train an oversupply so that they can be paid peanuts.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Richard. Your argument seems to be based on an assumption that markets act directly and effectively, by raising salaries, to solve these problems. I would query that. Training people with mathematics skills takes many years, and it involves training mathematics teachers first. When confronted with this sort of long-term problem the market usually finds a way of avoiding the skills wherever possible, and that is what is happening in Australia. For example, there is evidence that companies that need mathematics skills are not establishing offices in Australia. A major Australian employer of mathematical scientists, unable any longer to find in Australia the skills it needs, has started to outsource a significant amount of its work. Incidentally, this company also financially supports the education of foreign mathematics students in their home country, hoping to attract some of them to Australia on graduation. If this is the sort of situation that Australia’s political leaders regard as a desirable outcome then I guess we should not expect them to want to bring about change. However, many of us hope that they would prefer Australia to enjoy enough mathematics skills to meet demand.

  3. Dear Richard

    The finance industry is quite happy to pay big bucks for them. So is the defence industry.

    Why would maths lecturers be interested in having lowly-paid maths graduates? (Are you just dishing out some standard line?) If you want to argue about an “agenda”, it would be more sensible to suggest the employment of maths lecturers.

  4. A shortage of experienced Mathematics and Science teachers in Australia?? Having decided to leave South Africa because of political turmoil, high crime etc my first wish was to live in Australia. I am a Mathematics teacher for secondary school and have 20 years experience behind me. I do have a degree and education diplomas. However I am 2 years beyond the Australian Government cut off age and my application was rejected. Go figure….

  5. I’m very sorry to hear about that, Joy. Even as the Australian Government acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the supply of mathematics teachers, young mathematics graduates (with the necessary teaching qualifications) tell of difficulties finding teaching positions in schools, due to obstacles created for them by state bureaucracies. In your case I suspect the problem might have been caused by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the motivation of and regulations of which do not pay a lot of attention to the supply of mathematics skills. Sometimes progress can be made through appeal.

  6. 25/9/09.
    Hi Peter. I am a qualified mathematics teacher (BAppSc Mathematics (RMIT), GDipEd Vic College) who has been seeking school teaching jobs for 20 years. I had been teaching in schools in the late 1980’s
    when I left to look after a mother with cancer. After she passed away I could not get back into the system.
    I had taken a bus driving job and this always works against me at school interviews. I also have AMusA(piano) and am completing PGCert Math&Math Ed.

  7. I don’t think there is any shortage of mathematically trained people in Australia. I have served on several faculty search committees and we always received around 150 applications for just one open position. At least 50 of those people were well qualified for that position.

    Likewise in my company, we have no trouble finding suitably skilled people (mostly programmers) even on a short term contract basis.

    At the primary education and high school level, I note that two of the people who do tree trimming and gardening for me used to teach mathematics in NSW schools. They are knowledgeable in Logic, Set Theory, and Algebraic Topology, qualified and experienced in education, yet they work as gardeners.

    It is a cruel, Dilbert/Dogbert like joke to encourage more students to enroll and seek jobs in this area.

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