I would definitely welcome a greater degree of involvement for universities in the setting of the mathematics syllabus. However, this should not only involve mathematics departments but also other users of mathematics.
Professor Roger Heath-Brown
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has warned that if the UK fails to encourage more young people to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, it risks inhibiting its economic growth. Without higher volumes of both undergraduates and postgraduates from STEM-related fields, the Committee argues that the government could fail to meet the objectives set out in its Plan for Growth.
Despite the fact that employers operating within hi-tech industries require applicants with high-level numeracy skills, the Committee found that many students embarking upon STEM degrees – even those who had studied mathematics at A-Level – did not possess the skills required by their courses of study. In light of this, the Committee has recommended that mathematics should become a compulsory part of post-16 education, and that universities should impose stricter mathematical requirements for STEM courses and have more involvement in setting the mathematics curriculum.
The report’s assessment of the current state of STEM education will come as no surprise to many universities and employers who have been warning of such problems for some time. I spoke to Roger Heath-Brown, FRS, Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of Oxford’s Worcester College, to ask whether he thinks that the UK education system is adopting an unwise approach to mathematics teaching.
"Yes, I do," he said. "I would like to see the education system – particularly in its approach to pure research – being more positive about investing in research students and in young researchers. The one thing that I find very disappointing is that not all students who want to study further mathematics at A-Level are able to do so at their schools. The interest in mathematics amongst sixth-formers is still very strong, but I think that the syllabus for those who are going on to study maths-based subjects is geared a little too heavily towards knowledge-based aspects, rather than towards those that are skills-based."
In terms of the Committee’s recommendation for mathematics to become a compulsory part of post-16 education, Professor Heath-Brown was positive, but warned that putting such a scheme into practice would probably prove quite challenging.
"Basic numerical skills are important for any discipline," he explained. "They are a life skill. I think that to some extent, this is what the report will have in mind. I’m not sure what the reaction of the average sixth-former will be to these proposals. It is an idea that I’ve heard before, and I would love to see it put into practice if it were feasible. However, I’m not convinced that it is feasible in terms of timetabling constraints and motivation amongst pupils in general. I agree wholeheartedly that it is an important life skill for everybody to have; an understanding not necessarily of higher mathematics, but about how maths applies in everyday life.
"I would definitely welcome a greater degree of involvement for universities in the setting of the mathematics curriculum. However, this should not only involve mathematics departments but also other users of mathematics. I think that this would be very helpful."
It seems that Professor Heath-Brown believes that the authors of today’s report have put forward some sensible ideas. However, if the UK is to encourage a new generation of STEM graduates whose skills match their qualifications, mathematics needs to be viewed as a life skill in addition to its status as an academic pursuit.