Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Struggling to make sense of this

The UK Mathematics Foundation are worried that the state of mathmatics in this country is in a downward spiral and that unless changes in the way maths is taught are made soon we won't have enough maths teachers - which will, of course, add to the problem. On the other hand HEFCE believe that "market forces" should determine which courses are taught at universities and that smaller, struggling, courses will be brought together in National centres. Sir Howard Newby (head honcho at HEFCE), warns against "moral panic" over course closures.

Now I'm probably not the best person to ask about maths but I think there is a contradiction here - how can we meet the shortage of maths teachers if, as seems apparent, for whatever reason there are too few people studying the subject? And in the light of the number of physics departments that have closed are we approaching the end of maths as a recognised subject too? This isn't moral panic - it's pragmatism, once departments close it's a great deal harder to reopen them and the decline in "technical sciences" can only mean that in a few years time we will be a net importer of scientists.

3 careful considerations:

Bluefluff said...

HEFCE believe that "market forces" should determine which courses are taught at universities and that smaller, struggling, courses will be brought together in National centres.

I'm not sure that this is so terrible. Much of the personal (as opposed to academic) benefit of young people attending a conventional university is the simple fact of being independent, away from home. How much does it matter that the range of institutions to study your chosen subject is 20 rather than 100, if the 20 have a concentration of expertise & enthusiasm?
I've been aware of this subject shift for a while now, in my own original area of modern languages. The BBC story makes the point quite well, I think:
At present, funding council figures show that subjects such as French and German are widely and thinly spread - with a number of universities having fewer than a dozen undergraduates taking French courses. In contrast, there are a small number of French departments with several hundred students.
I suspect the situation may be similar with maths. Maths degrees may no longer be automatically availble at every university, but is this necessarily a Bad Thing, as long as places are still available? How important is geography?

Nogbad said...

I'm not sure that this is so terrible. Much of the personal (as opposed to academic) benefit of young people attending a conventional university is the simple fact of being independent, away from home. How much does it matter that the range of institutions to study your chosen subject is 20 rather than 100, if the 20 have a concentration of expertise & enthusiasm?

I agree that the quality of tuition is important but it's difficult to tie widening participation in with top up fees. Many of the target groups for WP are far less likely to move away from home to study - they are "debt averse" and often rely on parents to keep them and local jobs for money. Concentrating provision in a smaller number of national centres must reduce choice and also runs the risk of reducing scope, maths is an enormous subject with a vast range of flavours - can these be fully accommodated if all provision is focussed on a reduced number of sites?

And we shouldn't forget that the other function of universities is research. Will this continue in the same way as maths or physics or chemistry departments are being closed? Without research where will innovation grow?

Bluefluff said...

maths is an enormous subject with a vast range of flavours - can these be fully accommodated if all provision is focussed on a reduced number of sites?

I see no reason why not - mathematically (!) one institution with ten specialists can offer as many flavours as five institutions with two specialists. Additionally, those specialists may well be able to carry out more/better research in large, well-funded centres.

Besides, if that's the main concern, doesn't it cancel your argument about non-travelling WP students? In a fully distributed scenario, their chosen flavour may only be on offer 400 miles away anyway.

No, I think the real evil is top-up fees, not specialisation.