Sydney University abandons maths prerequisites in diversity push

I think this is a step in the right direction. I was always bad at maths at school but became a capable computer programmer using a demanding language called FORTRAN, which literally means "formula translation". A line of FORTRAN code looks very much like a line of algebra. And I did write programs requiring up to 5-dimensional matrices.

So I was good at something maths-related that would normally have required a maths prerequisite. But I would have been blocked by such a prerequisite these days. Prerequisites are simply too rigid to account for varying patterns of abiity in students

The University of Sydney is ditching the advanced mathematics prerequisites for scores of degrees in response to the declining number of HSC students taking the subject.

Vice chancellor Mark Scott said maths teacher shortages meant too many students could not study the subject in year 12, providing a barrier for diverse students to study at the university.

“Mathematical skills and knowledge are vital for students to succeed at university and thrive in the workplaces of the future,” he said.

“Yet through no fault of their own, many students don’t have the opportunity to take advanced mathematics at school, a situation exacerbated by ongoing maths teacher shortages that affect some schools more than others.”

The prerequisite change, to begin next year, is a reversal of much of the changes brought into effect in 2019 that introduced two unit maths prerequisites for 62 degrees.

That was supposed to address falling enrolments in maths and lift academic standards at the university.

However, the latest data from the NSW Education Standards Authority shows there were almost 10 per cent fewer students taking advanced maths in 2023 compared to 2018.

Scott, a former NSW Education secretary, said the university would provide “bespoke mathematics support” which would include tailored assistance and advice, preparatory workshops and bridging courses to catch students up.

The change will mean degrees including commerce, science, medicine, psychology, veterinary science and economics will no longer require students to have undertaken advanced maths in year 12.

Degrees in engineering, advanced computing and pharmacy will retain the mathematics prerequisite.

From next year, year 12 students who achieve a Band 3 or higher in advanced mathematics will also be eligible to receive an additional point towards their selection rank under the university’s Academic Excellence Scheme.

University of Canberra University associate professor Philip Roberts, a rural education specialist, said a lack of access to advanced mathematics was a huge issue, particularly in regional and low SES areas.

“Our research shows that schools which have larger numbers of low SES students are not studying advanced maths at the same rate as schools which have higher SES students,” he said.

He said teacher shortages were making the issue worse, but that it was also driven by a perception by students they would score better in general maths.

Roberts said even when universities did not have calculus-based mathematics prerequisites, students who did not take HSC advanced maths were still behind their peers who had once they started their degrees.

“Advanced maths also contributes more to their overall ATAR, so a lack of access limits their opportunities of getting into uni,” he said.

University of Sydney deputy vice chancellor (education) Professor Joanne Wright said it was clear it was harder for some students to access higher-level mathematics simply because of where they are from.

“Schools in regional and remote locations are significantly less likely to offer advanced and extension mathematics,” she said.

“Our new approach responds to these realities of the student experience today and ensures we’re better equipping students for their university studies and careers.”

She said new tools were being developed to identify gaps in students’ knowledge, including a pilot of a diagnostic tool designed to match students with the most appropriate learning support services when they enrol.

“Regardless of their starting point, all our students will have the opportunity to complete their studies with the same level of mathematics skills and knowledge,” Professor Wright said


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