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'Universities must be clear to prospective students about the mathematical needs of their courses'

Jeremy Hodgen professor of mathematics Education, King's College London, Mary McAlinden, discipline lead for mathematics, statistics and operational research at the Higher Education Academy and Anthony Tomei, a visiting professor at King's College London, write:  

In the world of the internet it really shouldn’t come as a shock to a student of biology, or psychology, or business, or many similar subjects, to find that they are going to have to do some mathematics or statistics as a part of their degree. Yet the headline finding of our recent Higher Education Academy (HEA) report is that many students are not only surprised, but seriously unprepared.

Given that England is a country where participation in post-16 mathematics is lower by a factor of three than that of any other OECD nation, this is maybe not surprising. But it is alarming nonetheless and the report sets out some of the consequences and makes some recommendations for the future.

The report, Mathematical Transitions, brings together and puts into context the findings of a major project funded and run by the HEA which looked at the mathematical and statistical needs of undergraduate students in disciplines including: business and management, chemistry, economics, geography, psychology and sociology. Broadly speaking these are disciplines where there is a clear need for mathematics and statistics, but where an A-level in mathematics is not usually a pre-requisite for acceptance at university (as it would be for physics and engineering, say). The project looked at the mathematical demands of these subjects, what the HE departments were doing to meet the students’ needs and how well students were coping.

The main findings were clear. While the nature and the level of the mathematics needed varies between and within the subjects they all make some form of mathematical demands on students. Yet many students arrive at university lacking an understanding either of the relevance of mathematics and statistics to their discipline, or of the demands that will be put on them. Lack of confidence and anxiety about mathematics are also problems for many students, which can make the transition into higher education particularly challenging.

This is a problem on a large scale. Some 85,000 students are admitted into university each year to study the disciplines in the project. Other disciplines (for example biological sciences and many health-related subjects) will have similar needs. A conservative estimate of the number of students affected is of the order of 200,000 each year.

The underlying problem is that too few students in the UK study any mathematics after the age of 16. Having “got GCSE maths out of the way” many students will neither study nor use mathematics again until they reach university and their skills, knowledge and confidence inevitably degrade. Most subject A levels contain very little mathematics and for students who do not study A or AS mathematics there are few other options.

The number of students studying A and AS level mathematics has been rising in recent years, but at 80,000 per year it may well have reached a limit. Few students with a B or a C grade in GCSE mathematics go on to A level – indeed many schools and colleges will not allow it. The forthcoming changes to A levels are if anything likely to result in lower numbers.

All is not gloom however. “Core maths” is a new pathway, being developed with strong government backing, with courses being designed precisely to meet the needs of these students who have a B or C at GCSE but for whom a full A or AS level is neither necessary nor appropriate. The potential for these courses is huge both in terms of the numbers involved and in their ability to make a difference to the lives of many students (and their HE teachers).

Nothing will happen unless the HE sector gives clear messages to its potential students about the mathematical needs of its courses. Schools will not put on the courses and students will not take them unless there is a clear message that HE courses welcome or better still require them. That will require engagement and dialogue between the sectors. Our firm view is that higher education needs to influence the development of “core maths” by becoming become actively involved with it. There is a valuable prize to be won if they do.

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