• The mathematical sciences play a key role in Australia’s higher education.
  • Mathematics departments are under pressure. Academic positions for younger mathematicians are disappearing.
  • Shortages of well qualified mathematics and science teachers are flagged.
  • Research is an integral part of Australian universities, and Australian mathematical research is generally strong. Nevertheless, in the future not all departments can be fully funded for research.
  • Universities have a particular responsibility to nurture young talent.

This submission from the National Committee for Mathematics makes no attempt to cover all of the issues confronting the Higher Education Review. Rather, it focuses on issues that relate to the role of the mathematical sciences in higher education.

Since the time of the earliest mediaeval universities mathematics has played a prominent role. Thus the quadrivium contained geometry and arithmetic, along with astronomy and music. Later centuries saw the entry of algebra and calculus, and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw explosive growth in number theory, set theory, statistics, mathematical modelling, digital computation, control theory, and applications to ever-widening areas. The modern view is that the mathematical sciences are not only a supreme creation of the human intellect, but also an ess ential foundation for national economic competitiveness. Thus the 1996 discipline review Mathematical Sciences: Adding to Australia (NBEET) found:

“The mathematical sciences are critical to Australia’s economic competitiveness and quality of life, and will become more so. The mathematical Sciences are generic and enabling technologies. They are essential to the prosperity of many value-adding industries in Australia.”

That review also found the mathematical sciences to be the most pervasive of disciplines. Mathematics enters in an essential way into the very formulation of modern physics and chemistry. It provides the everyday working language of engineering and technology. And it reaches into economics, the social and biological sciences, and in a major way (through statistics and mathematical modelling) int o medicine and health studies. The key role of mathematics in higher education is well understood within higher education institutions, with mathematics often being the most studied of all subjects – principally, of course, by students whose major field of study is elsewhere.

But the profession is now troubled, with most mathematics departments facing extreme pressure. Of course many disciplines are finding difficulties in the modern environment, but mathematics (along with the physical sciences) faces additional difficulties from the current unfashionability of physical science courses, and from some other disciplines yielding to the temptation to take over the teaching of mathematics to their students. It is expected to suffer further ill effects if the differential HECS scheme affects enrolments in science and engineering. Monash University, which had nearly 60 academic staff in 1992 is in the process of reducing its academic staff to around 30. Deakin University has closed its Mathematics Department, and many other departments are known to be threatened.

In times of contraction there is concern that contract and other positions for young mathematicians will simply disappear, leading to further imbalances in an age profile already skewed (again according to “Mathematical sciences: Adding to Australia) towards older ages. The result will be an irreplaceable loss of young talent, and probable academic staff shortages in the future.

The National Committee for Mathematics is also deeply concerned about present and future shortages of well qualified teachers in secondary school mathematics and science. (We think it self-evident that a well qualified teacher at that level should have a major in a relevant discipline.) The relevance of this to the Higher Education Review is that the differential HECS for science may have an unforseen side effect, of further discouraging potential teachers from undertaking serious discipline-based studies in mathematics and science. We consider that universities must accept responsibility for ensuring a strong disciplinary basis in the education of future teachers. Governments can help by refunding the additional HECS paid by committed teachers who have acquired a major in mathematics and science.

Research and research training are, and must remain, an integral part of Australian universities. The above-mentioned review found that research in the mathematical sciences in Australia is generally strong, with Australian Mathematicians making an honourable contribution to the collective effort in this most international of disciplines. At the same time, the National Committee accepts that the 1987 restructuring of Australian higher education created a system that is too large to permit every department in every university to be fully funded for research and research training, with anything like forseeable funding levels. Some revisiting of the Dawkins changes is inevitable, with a view to encouraging greater real diversity of aims. Departments that are already performing at international levels of excellence should be supported properly for research and research training, with assured funding for (say) a five-year period, because performance at this level is hard won, and easily lost.

Finally, we would wish to emphasise the particular responsibilities that universities have to encourage and nurture the most talented and creative young people, and to strive for excellence, not just throughput. The govenment has a responsibilty to invest as much enthusiasm in its training of a scientific elite as it does (for example, through the Australian Institute of Sport) for a sporting elite.

The National Committee for Mathematics is a committee appointed by the Australian Academy of Science to represent the interests of the mathematical sciences.

Ian H Sloan
National Committeee for Mathematics


Facsimile: +61 (2) 9385 1072
Telephone: +61 (2) 9385 3357