Mathematics skills out for the count

Two recent articles in the Daily Telegraph, “Students in almost 60 percent of high schools taught by unqualified teachers” and “Mathematics skills out for the count“, highlight two key (and related) concerns in Australian mathematics education: the continuing shortages of skilled maths teachers in high schools (with one in five schools having at least one maths teacher without full qualifications, according to a recent Australian Education Union survey), and the long-term decline in enrollments in advanced maths classes (stabilising a bit in the last year or so, but still 15-25 percent below the numbers from a decade earlier).

[Thanks to Phillip Booker for the links.]

Clay-Mahler lecture series

The Australian Mathematical Science Institute has set up a page regarding the ClayMahler lectures, including photos, videos, and media coverage.

I have put some of the slides of my own talks online on my blog:

  1. Here are the slides for the public lecture “Mathematical research and the internet”.
  2. Here are the slides for the four Access Grid Room talks, “Compressed sensing”, “Discrete random matrices”, “Recent progress in additive prime number theory”, and “Recent progress on the Kakeya problem”.
  3. Here are the slides for the public lecture “The cosmic distance ladder”.
  4. Here are the slides for the public lecture “Structure and randomness in the prime numbers” and the colloquium “Perelman’s proof of the Poincaré conjecture”.

Claims VU’s maths cut doesn’t add up

In the article “Claims VU’s maths cut doesn’t add up” in yesterday’s Australian by Andrew Trounson, comes the disturbing news that the draft “change plan” at Victoria University (part of its larger plan of voluntary and targeted redundancies to address its budgetary shortfall) will cut mathematics staff in the School of Engineering and Science (which was a recent merger of the engineering, computer science, and mathematics schools) in half from ten to five, while only reducing mathematics teaching by ten percent (and for some majors, such as engineering, the mathematics requirements are in fact going up).  It appears that the administration is hoping to use casuals or faculty from other departments to take on much of the service mathematics teaching.  While it is somewhat positive to see that the nominal amount of mathematics teaching is not being severely cut, the effect of the proposed staff cuts on the quality of that teaching, and on the workloads of the staff, are likely to be negative.

The parallels with the situation at the University of Southern Queensland last year are rather striking in this regard.  It is worth noting that the USQ administration eventually had to advertise several mathematics and statistics positions to cover their teaching, due to the number of staff leaving either voluntarily or involuntarily during their restructuring process.  Hopefully the VU administrative process will not be as short-sighted.

As with USQ, the cuts seem to be disproportionately falling on mathematics;  back in October it announced a plan to eliminate 250 staff campus-wide, including about a quarter of the academic staff.  The cuts seem to be prompted in part by a drop in computer science enrollments (which are aggregated into the mathematics enrollment statistics); a change plan for that department is supposed to appear soon.  (Ironically, the computer science masters program, which has seen one of the larger drops in enrollment, has a negligible mathematics requirement.)

Victoria University is home, among other things, to the Research Group in Mathematical Inequalities and Applications (RGMIA), as one of its specialist Research Centres in the Faculty of Health, Engineering, and Science research, and which publishes the Journal of Inequalities in Pure and Applied Mathematics; in December 2007, it was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Peak Award for Excellence in Research and Research Training.  It is proposed that the RGMIA is to lose a professor and lecturer position, with three full time teaching staff being cut from the rest of the department.

If any readers have any further news to share on this story, or more links and information to supplement the ones in this post, it would be great if they could be posted as a comment here.

[Update, June 17: see also this analysis of the mathematics change plan by Alasdair McAndrew, one of the staff at the VU maths department.  And here is an opinion by a VU student in computer science and maths.]

Review into poor mathematics qualifications

In today’s Australian, Andrew Trounson reports that the G08 has launched a review into the declining state of maths at Australian schools and universities, headed by Gavin Brown, currently director of the forthcoming Royal Institution of Australia, and formerly the vice-chancellor at U. Sydney and head of the maths department at UNSW, among other positions.  The focus will be on the lack of qualified mathematics teachers at the high school level, leading to high school graduates with an insufficient mathematical background for many types of professions.

[Update, June 4: See also this commentary by the Funneled Web.]

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.)

Maths in crisis as teachers go private

The acute shortage of trained maths teachers is finally beginning to get some attention in the national media, thanks in part to the NCMS strategy paper mentioned in the previous post.  From today’s Australian:

ADVANCED mathematics is disappearing from public school classrooms, leaving students able to learn only basic maths, because the few qualified teachers are being snapped up by the private sector.

The shortage of maths teachers will become more acute as fewer students continue maths at university, undermining the nation’s skills base in engineering, the sciences and technology, scientists warn.

“The inequitable access to quality mathematics education is a national disgrace,” the National Committee for the Mathematical Sciences says in a report calling for a national strategy to boost the discipline.

An estimated 40 per cent of senior school mathematics teachers do not have a maths major, the minimum needed to teach the subject to senior years, the committee believes. That is up from 30 per cent in 1999.

There is a lively discussion by readers following the article.

See also an opinion piece by Justine Ferrari today in the Australian entitled “Subject of shame: we suck at sums“, and a recent article by former mathematics lecturer Marty Ross in the Melbourne Age, entitled “Summing up a failure“.

No maths for top kids

In a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph entitled “No maths for top kids”,  Miawling Lam writes on how the acute shortage of trained maths high school teachers is seriously impacting the ability of mathematically advanced students to get a quality education in the subject.

The president of the Australian Mathematical Society, Nalini Joshi, sent out a message to all members of the AustMS regarding this article:

Dear AustMS Members,

The attached article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday on
01 March 2009. I have been advised that it is now time for all of us
concerned about mathematics education to write to our local Members of

A simple email will do and the following are two possible model letters:
“Dear X, I saw the attached article in the weekend paper. Can you please
tell me what steps the government is taking to deal with this? Yours
sincerely, Y.”
“Dear X, I am very worried about what will happen to our school kids’
education when there are no more mathematics teachers. See attached
article.  What will the government do to solve this problem? Sincerely, Y.”
For those not in NSW who wouldn’t get the Sunday Telegraph normally, you
could try another model:
“Dear X, A friend sent me the attached article from the Sunday Telegraph.
This is a national problem! What steps is the government taking to deal with
this? Hoping to hear from you, Y.”

The email addresses of federal members of parliament can be found at

Links to state MP’s emails are at or obtainable through:
South Australia
Western Australia

Kind regards

A disturbing set of numbers

The incoming president of the Australian Mathematical Society, Nalini Joshi, writes today in the Australian on the shortages of qualified mathematics teachers at the secondary level, and the concomitant decline in mathematics achievement levels of students.

Renaissance of the sciences as student demand increases for courses

The Australian reports today that there has been a significant surge (by 10-20 percent) in student applications for maths, science, and engineering courses in Australia this year, which is being attributed both to the significant reduction in HECS fees for these subjects and to increased social awareness among students as to the importance of these areas.  Hopefully the universities will retain their capability to teach these subjects well to an increased number of students…

Maths trust calls for teaching shakeup

In a brief item for ABC news, Peter Taylor of the Australian Mathematics Trust notes declining enrolments in advanced mathematics in Australian schools and universities, and calls for an increased emphasis on problem-solving skills in maths classes in schools that go beyond the current curriculum.

Coincidentally, in the recent article “Is the sky still falling?” in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, it was observed that maths enrollments in US colleges have grown modestly in the last ten years in absolute terms, but have declined substantially relative to total enrollments, possibly because in the US, enrollment in maths is tied to a large extent to enrollments in engineering, which has fluctuated quite a bit in recent years.  (The study also recommends developing alternatives to the standard calculus courses as entry points to a maths program.)

[Thanks to Margaret Smith for the first link.]