Opinion- 01 December 2007



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Peter Hall Offers Some Observations As Regards Australian Mathematics to Come

   TFW asked the President of the Australian Mathematical Society Peter Hall if -- with the election of Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party to govern the nation -- he would be prepared to comment on the situation as regards mathematics and statistics in Australia and what needs to be done.


This is his reply:


 There are no simple solutions, of course; if there were, they probably would have been implemented. The main things I'd like to see are more funding for the school and university sectors, and a re-focus back onto academic values.  The current shortage of funding has led universities to undertake a variety of forays into "cult" or "niche" activities, taking them away from providing the skills which (in my area at least*) are still very much in demand by employers.


The problems in universities clearly won't be solved without addressing problems in schools; and the problems in schools won't be solved without producing larger numbers of university-trained, qualified school teachers.  There are ways of overcoming this nexus,  but they require state and federal governments to work closely together, and that won't happen quickly, or produce results rapidly.


It seems clear that in the years ahead, Australia’s economic performance, and our capacity for addressing the major problems that face us (for example, climate change), will be constrained by our success in delivering the advanced skills we need. The better we can plan to provide skills, the greater will be the opportunities we shall leave for our children.

In terms of providing skills in the mathematical sciences, at least two broad issues are of paramount importance.

First, with regard to school mathematics education, the quality and quantity of the mathematics skills we can deliver are limited by the number, and level of training, of school mathematics teachers. As a nation we have the capacity to achieve great heights in the mathematical sciences, if only we can get the school education part right. The main difficulty we are experiencing is a debilitating shortage of adequately trained school mathematics teachers. Approaches to overcoming this problem include:

  1. making fee-free, or fee-reduced, places available for university training of mathematics teachers;

  2. ensuring that training opportunities are widely available (for example, by having excellent and innovative mathematics programs in regional universities as well as in their capital-city counterparts);

  3. providing salary loadings for school mathematics teachers;

  4. supplying income support for career-change professionals;

  5. raising the profile of teaching as a profession, and

  6. encouraging greater participation in mathematics education, particularly in relatively advanced courses.

In connection with the first two points I’m concerned by reports I’ve seen relating to potential redundancies in the mathematical sciences in our universities.


The third point above was raised in the Productivity Commission Review, and, as noted there, it is an important step towards remedying the mathematics teacher supply problem. One way of raising the profile of teaching (see point 5 above) might be to confer annual awards by the states for mathematics and science teachers not unlike the Prime Minister’s national prize for science teachers, and promote the esteem in which teachers are held in Australia.


Until we can manage to increase the number of undergraduate mathematics students, bringing graduates to the teaching profession from other areas will be one of the main ways in which mathematics teacher shortages are addressed.


To encourage greater participation in mathematics education we must address a major problem experienced across Australia -- the consistent and long-term drift from higher-level to lower-level school mathematics courses. Although the number of students studying mathematics at school is staying approximately constant, the number doing anything but basic mathematics is currently in  rather steep decline. The deficit is most striking among young women; we must increase the number of students enrolled in high-level mathematics courses, and heighten the participation of young women in mathematics, if we are to have a chance of adequately addressing the mathematics skills crisis that we face.

I cannot emphasise enough the role that university-level mathematics education, as well as proper teacher training, must play in the preparation of school mathematics teachers. To quote a 2000 report by the US National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century: “The most consistent and most powerful predictors of higher student achievement in mathematics and science are: (a) full certification of the teacher and (b) a college major in the field being taught.”


Secondly, the mathematical sciences review, which reported last year, drew the nation’s attention to the strongly negative impact that federal government university funding models have had on the nation’s ability to train and retain mathematical scientists.


The Howard government accepted at least part of the responsibility for these problems, and in the federal budget last May the level of funding per mathematics and statistics student was substantially increased. Unfortunately it is far from clear that the new funding will actually reach the mathematics groups that need it. This is despite the clear signals that the federal government sent in the budget last May, and also last month when the government awarded a Collaborative and Structural Reform Fund Grant to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.


In particular, it would be discouraging in the extreme if at this point, when the need for high levels of mathematics is being recognised by federal and state governments across the country, university managers were to act to reduce access to mathematics courses by creating further redundancies, as appears to be the case at some institutions.


The challenges that all Australian universities are facing in mathematics research were enunciated by the review’s international members after interviewing hundreds of mathematicians, employers of mathematicians and users of mathematics:


Australia’s distinguished tradition and capability in mathematics and statistics is on a truly perilous path. The decline has already taken its toll: the university presence has been decimated, in part by unanticipated consequences of funding formulas and by neglect of the basic principle that mathematics be taught by mathematicians, and the supply of students and graduates is falling short of national needs.


The mathematical sciences skill base in any country is too important for its future prosperity to let short-term market mechanisms act alone. We sincerely hope that leaders in Australian Government, academia and industry will collaborate with the mathematics and statistics community to develop an appropriate vision, and spark an Australian renaissance in our field.


And by “Australian Government” here, read “state and federal governments,” since the resources for higher education and research training are coming increasingly from the states. It is at the state level that the edge will be found in the competition for skills in Australia.


*Peter Hall is Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, The University of Melbourne.