Education: Wonderful brains, shame about the maths: A lack of basic numeracy can seriously damage graduates' job prospects, says Elaine Williams

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The Independent Online
BEHIND the bright demeanours of our cleverest graduate and undergraduate students lie some fearfully innumerate individuals. The best classicists and English graduates - even business, archaeology or geology graduates - often lack confidence with basic mathematics. An outstanding Chaucerian scholar might break into a cold sweat when asked to interpret graphs or calculate percentages; he or she might even falter over day-to-day sums.

Take Michael Moynihan, a 29-year- old Arabic and business management graduate from Durham University. He travelled extensively before gaining a place at Durham and mastered Arabic and Hebrew, studying in Cairo and Tel Aviv. He was heading for a master of business administration (MBA) scholarship in Japan and a brilliant future - until his problem with simple mathematics came to light. At the first attempt Mr Moynihan failed his GMAT exam - the entry qualification for top-stream MBA courses - and the scholarship had to be put on hold.

He had been hiding his innumeracy for years. He could never remember a telephone number, and even had trouble adding up. While travelling he had been able to work out currency differences only with a calculator - but calculators are not allowed in many graduate admission tests.

Mr Moynihan says: 'I hadn't done any maths since I was 16. There are plenty of jobs I could have applied for with a four-year degree in management but I didn't because of numeracy difficulties. Once you develop a fear of maths, it gets worse. It becomes a phobia.'

Educated in the Republic of Ireland, Mr Moynihan left school at 16 and worked as a motor mechanic before setting off for work and travel across Europe and the Middle East. He blames bad teaching for his lack of numeracy: 'Maths teachers need to give a lot

of time to the individual, because once you start getting left behind it's very difficult to catch up, and then you lose confidence.'

Michael Cornelius, numeracy fellow at Durham University, also believes that poor maths teaching in schools and a dependency on calculators has led to a general decline in numeracy.

Durham is one of several institutions concerned about numeracy levels in its student population. Hull and Essex universities have also established numeracy tutors, but Durham's Numeracy Project - run by Mr Cornelius with funds from the Department of Trade and Industry - is intended to reach the entire student population.

It aims to help students to brush up their maths to whatever level they need. Now in its second year, the project has attracted one in 25 of Durham's students - some preparing for employers' numeracy tests, some merely wanting proficiency in basic maths, and others seeking help at more advanced levels in their particular subjects.

'It is often assumed that anyone capable of achieving a degree must be numerate,' says Mr Cornelius. 'Such an assumption is dangerous. There exists a sizeable minority which is frightened of mathematics and encounters considerable difficulty with simple mathematical concepts and processes.

'Universities should be sending out new graduates with not only a specialist degree but also a balanced, broad education. Being numerate is part of such an education.'

Taking a sample of graduates in employment, Mr Cornelius estimates that 97 per cent need to use percentages in the course of their work, 90 per cent use averages and 89 per cent tabulated data; 93 per cent use a calculator. His sample indicated that one in six graduates lacked confidence in these areas. Some students have had to start at rock bottom with a booklet called Mental Tests for Juniors - aimed at seven-year-olds.

Some students, such as John Watkins, a 21-year-old archaeology undergraduate, are interested in becoming proficient in statistical analysis. Mr Watkins is particularly keen to master calculation and trigonometry. He abandoned maths after O-level and believed his mental arithmetic to be hopeless. But he soon realised that mathematical agility was crucial to success in archaeology and so approached Durham's numeracy centre. As a taster, he was given the GCSE textbook Maths for Today, and has progressed from there. 'Archaeologists I know say skill in maths is the most important thing you can have, although other people on my course think I am crazy because maths is supposed to be boring,' he says. 'I used to have a mental block whenever I encountered numbers - now I see it as a challenge.'

Mr Watkins believes many fellow students attempt to hide a serious deficiency in mathematics. Such subterfuge is usually discovered when graduates are confronted with employers' numeracy tests.

Increasingly, companies recruiting graduates into management are looking for all-rounders. Marina Lateef, a 22-year-old law graduate from Durham, asked for help in her final year at the university, having failed two company assessment tests. Without practice it had been difficult to finish the numeracy papers in time, particularly as calculators had not been allowed. Her maths was passable, but she was out of training.

Beverley Whiteford, graduate recruitment manager for Northern Foods, says graduate assessment exercises are more figure-oriented than ever before: 'To get on in business, graduates must have a good understanding of figures. That must equate with good commercial awareness. Arts graduates have to show that they can handle data as well as anybody else.'

Competition for jobs among graduates has led employers to raise their entry standards. 'Employers are in a position to demand a lot of things,' says Ms Whiteford. 'They want graduates to be all-singing, all-dancing - and competence in numeracy comes into that.'

Andrew Nelson, graduate recruitment manager for TSB, says employers are beginning to perceive lack of numeracy among graduates as a distinct problem. 'People tend to switch off from maths after GCSE,' he says, 'but a good degree isn't enough. Employers look

at that as a starting point. Many graduates lack mental agility with figures because they have been too dependent on calculators.'

Just how numerate are you?

THESE are some of the exercises the Durham University Numeracy Project has devised for its students:


A father left pounds 2,400 in his will to David, Mary and Robert in the ratio 4:3:5.

1. How much did David get?

a. pounds 400; b. pounds 600; c. pounds 1,200; d. pounds 300; e. pounds 800.

2. What percentage of the total amount went to Mary?

a. 41.0 per cent; b. 42.6 per cent; c. 25.0 per cent; d. 33.3 per cent; e. 50.0 per cent.

3. An uncle left pounds 1,800 in the same ratio. What was the difference in the two amounts received by Robert?

a. pounds 750; b. pounds 250; c. pounds 850; d. pounds 400; e. insufficient data.

4. A second uncle left money to David and Mary in the ratio 2:3. If David's money from his father was twice as much as from the second uncle, how much did Mary receive from the second uncle?

a. pounds 600; b. pounds 400; c. pounds 720; d. pounds 1,000; e. insufficient data.


Double glazing salesperson's income:

Basic pay, pounds 7 per hour worked. Commission, 2 per cent on first pounds 1,000 sales per week, 3.5 per cent on sales in excess of pounds 1,000.

1. Mr Brown sells pounds 7,000 worth of double glazing in a 40-hour week. What is his income?

a. pounds 510; b. pounds 420; c. pounds 525; d. pounds 480; e. insufficient data

2. What percentage of his income is commission?

a. 55 per cent; b. 65 per cent; c. 45 per cent; d. 40 per cent; e. insufficient data.

3. If Mr Brown earns pounds 580 in the next 40-hour week, how many thousand pounds' worth of double glazing has he sold?

a. 8; b. 9; c. 10; d. 11; e. insufficient data.

4. If Mr Brown sold the same amount in a 30-hour week, what would be his percentage fall in income?

a. 25; b. 33.3; c. 12; d. 40; e. insufficient data.


Inherited money: 1 e; 2 c; 3 b; 4 a. Double glazing: 1 a; 2 c; 3 b; 4 c.

(Photograph omitted)