Universities must back special maths schools to keep UK competitive

Too many British students lack the necessary maths skills to excel in their degrees, according to Education Minister Elizabeth Truss

Universities are being urged to back specialist maths schools amid concerns they are being forced to fill degree places with students from overseas.

English teenagers are missing out on university courses and career opportunities because they do not have decent maths skills, according to Education Minister Elizabeth Truss.

She claimed that many universities are complaining about a lack of students who have studied maths after age 16, which is putting the UK at a disadvantage internationally.

In a speech, Ms Truss called on institutions to support new maths free schools, which she argues will give teenagers from poorer homes the knowledge they need to study maths at degree level.

Exeter University and King's College London are already due to open maths free schools next year, she told the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education's (ACME) annual conference.

"Other universities have already sponsored or partnered academies specialising in maths. We want this movement to spread still further," she said.

Institutions will be able to apply to sponsor new maths free schools through a fast-track system, Ms Truss said.

"These schools will not only improve standards in maths teaching, working with local schools, but they will also equip talented young people from low income backgrounds with the skills they need to study maths at university."

Speaking after, Ms Truss suggested it was down to universities submitting their proposals to state how they will recruit students from poorer homes.

The minister told the conference that these new schools will help to widen access to top universities.

"One of my concerns is that some of the gaps between low income students and high income students are greater in the maths and sciences than they are in arts and humanities," she said.

"I hope this is the start of a new network of world class free schools under top universities helping prepare talented 16-19-year-olds from any and every background for the demands of university study," she added.

Ms Truss insisted that one of the "most important" things is to get more teenagers to continue studying maths beyond GCSE.

"We know our country is way behind our competitors in this respect," she told delegates.

"Around 85 per cent of young people in Japan study virtually the equivalent of maths A-level; it's only 20 cent here."

She claimed that figures had shown that in 2009, around 330,000 students started higher education courses that required some element of maths, but only 125,000 young people had studied the subject.

"A lot of universities are complaining that they can't find enough home students with adequate maths," she argued.

"Forty-six per cent chemistry students have not studied mathematics at A-level. For computer science the figure increases to over 64 per cent. And as a result, English students are missing out."

She said that in 2012 a large proportion of students recruited onto the electrical engineering course at Imperial College were from overseas.

Ms Truss also described a chance meeting on a train with a German biologist who had described new industries opening up in areas such as biomechanics.

"What he had observed is that many of these new areas of biology are effectively closed to English biology students because they require advanced mathematical skills - A-level, at least - and only 30 per cent of English biology undergraduates have studied A-level maths. So all of these exciting new areas are not open to our students."