The sum of all fears

University mathematics is under threat. A new report to MPs claims that departmental closures are creating maths 'deserts' and depriving the UK of vital skills. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

The closure of maths at Hull University is but the tip of an iceberg. University maths departments are continuing to be closed down and maths "deserts" are being created in some regions, according to a scathing report from the leading mathematical body, to be delivered to MPs next week.

The picture that will be painted when leading academics from the London Mathematical Society (LMS) give evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee could hardly be more stark. When Amanda Chetwynd, the society's vice-president from Lancaster University, sits down in the wood-panelled committee room, she'll say the continuing loss of the UK's higher education maths base critically weakens the areas on which the country's wealth and health depend. The committee, inquiring into the recent spate of science department closures at English universities, won't need reminding of the urgency of the situation. Even in the space between the LMS being invited to submit evidence and the committee session itself, another maths department has gone to the wall.

A fortnight ago, Hull University decided to close its maths degree course, because, among other things, it was having difficulties attracting UK students. The demise of maths on the Humber underlines one of the LMS's central points: the closure and radical slimming down of maths departments at small- and medium-sized institutions is leaving some areas devoid of degree courses, creating wastelands that are depriving many people of the opportunity of studying the subject and going on to use their skills in research, industry, business and teaching.

Chetwynd's major worry is that Hull University's news will shortly be followed by similar announcements from several other provincial institutions. "There are 48 universities in England still doing full, single-honours maths courses. Some of these have very small numbers of students and staff. You can see what might happen."

The state of affairs is also top of the agenda for the committee of Heads of Department of Mathematical Sciences (HoDoMS), who are aware of many departments around the country under serious threat. One is said to be teetering on the brink of extinction. The common factor where closure threatens is a shortage of applicants for first degrees. Evidence of the relative lack of interest in studying maths among school pupils is abundant. The number of sixth-formers taking A-level maths has fallen steadily in the past two decades: down nearly 20 per cent in England and Wales, from 72,000 in 1985 to 58,000 in 2002.

Whenever I go back to the prize-giving evening at the first comprehensive I taught at, I always scan the list of universities and courses chosen by the teenagers who used to come into my classroom four times a week for maths lessons. This year, as my eye made its way down the column of 68 names, it stopped on the word mathematics just three times; each, incidentally, alongside a girl's name. One had just started single honours maths at Bristol, another was combining it with law at Keele and a third reading chemistry and maths at Sheffield. That's less than five per cent of the cohort choosing the subject that underpins all of science and much more besides. Meanwhile, nearly 30 per cent of last summer's sixth-form leavers are now on courses in media, sociology or psychology.

But is the dwindling proportion of maths undergraduates as much a symptom of the root problem as a cause? The LMS would certainly argue that way, because it fingers another factor as the key culprit behind the withering of the maths base in higher education: the distribution of money. According to the LMS, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) is underestimating the needs of small- and medium-sized maths departments - in particular the number of teachers needed on degree courses - with the result that more and more departments are appearing as "uneconomic", even if they're delivering good degree courses and engaged in research of national importance. "This, together with decisions taken by the research councils," says Peter Cooper, the executive secretary of the LMS, "means all the funding mechanisms reward geographical concentration of expertise and resources."

This is fine for the prestigious and large universities, which are enjoying rude health. Liverpool University, for example, has 23 per cent more applicants for first-degree maths courses than last year. "We feel we are quite healthy," says Alan Irving, the head of Liverpool's maths department. Applications are up and research is booming. We are actually appointing new staff." The story's the same at the similarly red-bricked campus of Birmingham University. "The size and quality of the applicant pool has gone up steadily over the last three years," says Richard Kaye, the admissions tutor for maths.

Although this trend is comforting for the premier league universities, it is, according to the LMS and HoDoMS, damaging for the national picture. A regional spread of maths degree courses, it is argued, embedded in departments with active research programmes, is essential if the supply of maths-trained graduates is to be maintained, let alone increased. Local universities are particularly important for mature and part-time students, and those from non-traditional backgrounds, all of whom are going to be needed to satisfy the growing demand in the real world for mathematical minds. Stephen Huggett is a reader in maths at one such institution, Plymouth University, which still runs a single-honours, maths degree. "It's very difficult to maintain the diversity of research-active lecturers, which threatens the viability of the degree," he says.

There's a suspicion in the maths and wider science community that the fundamental importance of increasing the number of maths graduates is still not properly understood in political circles. "So many new employment sectors are desperate to get hold of maths graduates," says Cooper. These include the rapidly expanding field of biosciences, communication technology and computer programming, as well as the growing areas of finance and accounting. If we lose the maths base, we lose the intellectual edge that has helped the UK to excel in so many areas."

Umbilically linked to this is the continued shortage of qualified maths teachers in schools. Thirty per cent of teachers taking maths lessons do not have a degree in the subject, a factor that must be contributing to the decreasing popularity of the subject. HoDoMS says this will only get worse if higher education maths becomes ever more concentrated in the surviving big departments. This pessimism will, though, come as no surprise to ministers. Similar conclusions were drawn a year ago in Making Mathematics Count, the report into secondary school maths from Professor Adrian Smith, the principal of Queen Mary College, University of London.

And the closure of Exeter University's chemistry department in November prompted an announcement from Charles Clarke, the then education secretary, that might have, to some, given the impression that the Government was aware of the problem and on top of it. But are they even keeping pace with events? Clarke's statement identified degrees in science, engineering, technology and maths as courses of national strategic importance. He asked Hefce to report back on "whether intervention is necessary to protect any of these subjects".

But while he was making that request, the wheels were turning at Hull in preparation to close its maths course. Who knows if, by the time Hefce's response arrives on the desk of Clarke's successor, Ruth Kelly, another maths department will have had to make an uncomfortable announcement? "There's no joined-up thinking," says Huggett, who was scientific secretary to a recent international review of maths provision in the UK. The review panel, consisting of leading mathematicians from abroad, concluded that "the UK cannot afford to concentrate its advanced training in mathematics in a small number of highly competitive universities".

The LMS will present MPs with a string of measures it says are essential if degree- and research-level maths is to flourish across the country - a prerequisite, it argues, for the increased supply of mathematicians the country needs. As a priority, it says attention must be directed at the negative spiral, whereby a paucity of maths graduates leads to shortages of maths teachers, inspiring fewer degree course applicants, and so on. "We need to inject some cash to stop that spiral," says Chetwynd. Specifically, the LMS proposes higher grants and fee-waivers for students taking maths degrees, more money to help universities help existing schoolteachers update their knowledge and re-energise their teaching, and funds to enable more university academics to go into schools and inspire teenagers to take maths and science at A-level and beyond.

But the Government has not had their heads completely in the sand. Following the Smith report last year, it announced the first step towards the establishment of a National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. Small increases were also made to the financial incentives for graduates to train to become maths teachers. Ministers' rhetoric has been supportive and sympathetic. But, on the ground, away from Whitehall, most members of the mathematics community see a dire need for bolder and more emphatic action to match the fine words.