Executive Summary: Mathematical Sciences in Australia - Looking for a Future

The brain drain from the universities, exemplified by the data from the mathematical sciences documented as part of this study, represents the kind of loss of intellectual capital no nation that aspires to be a leader in science and technology can afford. Significantly much of this loss has been in areas such as statistics which underpin other areas where Australia aspires to be a world leader such as financial services and biotechnology.

Further, in terms of young peoples’ life chances, English and mathematics remain the access subjects. However, the economic divide in access to mathematics is now firmly entrenched in our schools system, and will become progressively worse unless something is done urgently about teacher supply. Remote rural schools and ‘hard to staff’ inner urban schools will be left deprived of the essential resource they need—well qualified mathematics teachers—to offer the more advanced courses and a quality mathematics education for all students. 

In the long term, solving the supply of mathematics teachers is intimately connected to the number of students studying advanced level mathematics in schools and strong mathematical sciences in the universities. However, both of these have shrunk—when they should have been expanding—so Australia now suffers a crisis throughout the mathematical sciences.

For these reasons the sense of optimism engendered in the science community by the Chief Scientist’s Discussion Paper The Chance to Change 1, and the report of the Innovation Summit Implementation Group (ISIG) InnovationUnlocking the Future 2 , is more muted in the mathematical sciences. In the words of one mathematician, “…neither increased ARC funding nor post docs will help much the diminished role of mathematics and statistics departments in universities”3 . This echoes the fear in the mathematical sciences that even if the recommendations of these two reports are implemented—which they should be—the implementation will fall far short of what is needed to restore the health of this fundamental discipline. In 2000 the mathematical sciences in Australia face a perilous future.

Summary of Principal Findings and Priorities for Action

This report has three main findings and priorities for investment in the mathematical sciences. These are the areas that need immediate action but to re-build the mathematical sciences in Australia a long term, coordinated strategy is needed that addresses the multi-faceted weaknesses that are now inherent across the discipline. The priority areas are:

• improving the number of students in advanced mathematical courses in schools and universities,

• ensuring that all students are taught mathematics by teachers with appropriate content knowledge and teaching skills and,

• addressing the problems in university mathematics by reversing the excessive staff and student losses.
1 Batterham, R. (2000). www.isr.gov.au/science/review
2 Miles, D. (2000). www.isr.gov.au/industry/summit/
3 Personal communication. FASTS Mathematical Science Issues, 2000

Participation of students in advanced level mathematics courses

The finding: The number of year 12 students studying advanced mathematical courses continues to decline, a consistent trend since 1990.

Solution: A national campaign to promote awareness of the benefits of continuing the study of mathematics at the highest levels for as long as possible and which highlights the benefits to long term career prospects.

Teacher supply

The finding: Few mathematics graduates are choosing teaching as a career at a time

when many experienced and well-qualified mathematics teachers are retiring. Many primary teachers need further studies in mathematics and it is estimated that about 40% of junior secondary students are taught mathematics by a teacher who has little or no background in mathematics and no studies in the teaching of mathematics.

Solution: Greatly improved incentives must be found to attract mathematics graduates to teaching and also students into mathematics and thence to teaching. Secondary teachers teaching out of field should be given study leave to develop appropriate mathematical knowledge and skills. Professional development for primary teachers should be enhanced to include more opportunities for improvement in content knowledge. Teacher education for primary teachers should be re-examined to ensure that sufficient and appropriate mathematical content is taught and learnt

Mathematics in the universities

The finding: A decline of some 25% in staff since 1995, a brain drain of both experienced and new researchers, marginalised or restructured departments, fewer applications for research grants, few if any new appointments, difficulties in making appointments in key areas such as financial mathematics and statistics, and some universities no longer offering a three year degree majoring in mathematics or statistics.

Solution: Implementation of the Chief Scientist’s and ISIG reports with special attention to be paid to the mathematical sciences as the world-wide demand for excellent mathematical scientists far outstrips supply. Greater support for existing research and teaching in the mathematical sciences in the universities, disincentives for collaborative teaching to be removed and the visibility of the mathematical sciences to be enhanced. A national centre with adjunct state centres, possibly on the lines of the Canadian Fields Institute 4 , should be established.

4 The author visited the Fields Institute this year and holds a copy of the 1999 report. See also

www.fields.utoronto.ca and Chapter 8 in National Committee for Mathematics (1996). Mathematical

sciences: Adding to Australia. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, pp. 99-107.