Mathematics 'too hard for students and dons': British universities drop subject from science courses

Competition from the Far East is a standard boogeyman in education debates but in this case it is real. There is huge mathematical talent in China and Chinese mathematicians are already to be found in universities just about everywhere

It's not an entirely new problem either. My mathematical talents are slim to the point of invisibility but in the large Sociology Dept. where I worked during my academic career it usually fell to me to teach statistical analysis! Nobody else was willing or able to do it. Yet statistical analysis is an integral part of sociological research

Universities are dropping maths from degree courses because students – and their lecturers – cannot cope with it, a report warns today. Decades of substandard maths education in schools has led to a ‘crisis’ in England’s number skills, threatening the future of the economy, it says.

Universities are being forced to dumb down degree courses requiring the use of maths, including sciences, economics, psychology and social sciences. Students are unable to tackle complex problems and their lecturers struggle to teach them anyway, it is claimed.

The reputation of the country’s universities and graduates is now under threat, according to the report, ‘Solving the Maths Problem’, published by the education lobby group RSA.

After looking at maths education in other countries, the authors found that lessons and qualifications in English schools were ‘not fit for purpose’.

They say that classes fail to stretch the brightest while leaving weaker pupils ill-equipped to use maths for work and family budgeting, and warn of a growing knock-on effect on universities.

‘English universities are sidelining quantitative and mathematical content because students and staff lack the requisite confidence and ability,’ the report says, adding that English universities are ‘not keeping pace’ with international standards.

Some universities are no longer advertising the level of maths needed to study particular subjects for fear of putting off applicants, the report warns.

It adds: ‘Recent research suggests that universities are marginalising mathematical content in the delivery of degree courses because English students are not capable of studying it.’

The report by the RSA – formally called the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – suggests that all students should be required to study maths until the age of 18, with the introduction of sixth-form qualifications such as ‘Maths for Citizenship’. England is just one of a handful of developed nations that fail to educate pupils in maths until that age, it says.

Only 15 per cent of youngsters study the subject past 16, aside from GCSE candidates taking resits to boost their grades.

The report also backs the introduction of a ‘double award’ maths GCSE, with one section concentrating on maths for everyday life and the other covering formal maths such as algebra and geometry.

‘Mathematics knowledge and qualifications are increasingly important gateways to further and higher education, for crucial life-skills and in order to respond to economic change,’ it says. ‘But the way mathematics is taught and assessed in England has not always kept pace with these changes or with the needs of learners and has left one in four adults functionally innumerate.’


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