Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 26

Memorandum from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications

INTRODUCTION

  The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) is the professional and learned society for qualified and practising mathematicians. Its mission is to promote mathematics in industry, business, the public sector, education and research. Founded in 1964, the Institute now has over 5,000 members. In 1990 the Institute was incorporated by Royal Charter and was subsequently granted the right to award chartered mathematician status.

  The IMA welcomes the opportunity to put forward its views, concerning the actions being taken to safeguard an adequate level of mathematics teaching and research across universities in England. By logical, exact, quantitative, structural analyses, and by powerful techniques of abstraction and modelling, mathematics provides the underpinning for all other scientific study. Its role in the physical and technological sciences is well-known; there is a welcome growing awareness that it plays the same fundamental part in the life sciences, in the economic and financial sciences, and in the social and health sciences.

  The mathematical sciences do not remain static in a world of change, but constantly evolve. New applications bring new challenges, and new problems, which require the development of new tools, new methods, new theories. (The successful part played by the UK mathematics community in such fundamental developments is highlighted in the recent IRM, International Review of Mathematics Research in UK—commissioned by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.)

  Mathematics, with its wide-ranging applications, is nevertheless a fundamental discipline in its own right. It is a coherent subject, and one where connections are of crucial importance; in practice new ideas and understandings grow and flourish through cross-fertilisation. It is a subject where theory and practice are inextricably combined; doing mathematics is an integral part of learning mathematics.

  Mathematical talent is widely dispersed; successful students of mathematics in universities and schools come from a wide range of backgrounds, and the widening access agenda poses no special problem for the subject. The completion of mathematics A-levels and degrees with a significant mathematical component are demonstrably life-enhancing; it is a challenge for us all to convey that message to potential students and their families. (The mathematical societies have collaborated in a new careers website, www.mathscareers.org.uk, but that alone is insufficient.)

  The IMA has very close links with the London Mathematical Society (LMS) and has worked collaboratively on numerous occasions. The two societies make up two thirds of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences (CMS) which was established in 2001. Along with the Royal Statistical Society, the CMS provides a forum for the three mathematical societies. Taking this into consideration, and reviewing the LMS's submission (Annex 1) (published as Appendix 68), the IMA would like the Science and Technology committee to acknowledge our endorsement of the LMS submission. We strongly agree with the opinions of the LMS, to the points set by the committee. The IMA has, however, provided additional comments that we feel the committee needs to be advised of.

POINT 1—THE IMPACT OF HEFCE'S RESEARCH FUNDING FORMULAE, AS APPLIED TO RESEARCH ASSESSMENT EXERCISE RATINGS, ON THE FINANCIAL VIABILITY OF UNIVERSITY SCIENCE DEPARTMENTS

  No additional comments.

POINT 2—THE DESIRABILITY OF INCREASING THE CONCENTRATION OF RESEARCH IN A SMALL NUMBER OF UNIVERSITY DEPARTMENTS, AND THE CONSEQUENCES OF SUCH A TREND

  Until recently, the previous pattern of provision of mathematics courses at undergraduate and at postgraduate levels, which functioned well and had a stable existence, were made up of a number of key elements. One of these was a number of internationally-renowned departments attracting the best researchers and offering outstanding opportunities for research training. Another element was those departments whose main focus was on applications of mathematics, and these were often highly committed to teaching mathematics as a supporting study in engineering, science etc Several such departments also developed "practice-based" mathematics courses. However, in addition to modest recruitment to these courses, internal funding considerations have rendered these departments vulnerable. The continuing process of closure is contributing to the erosion of the mathematics base, the presence of which is an essential element in any attempt to deal with the identified problems with school mathematics.

POINT 3—THE IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITY SCIENCE TEACHING OF CHANGES IN THE WEIGHTINGS GIVEN TO SCIENCE SUBJECTS IN THE TEACHING FUNDING FORMULA

  No additional comments.

POINT 4—THE OPTIMAL BALANCE BETWEEN TEACHING AND RESEARCH PROVISION IN UNIVERSITIES, GIVING PARTICULAR CONSIDERATION TO THE DESIRABILITY AND FINANCIAL VIABILITY OF TEACHING-ONLY SCIENCE DEPARTMENTS

  Mathematics degree courses are best taught in research active departments, by staff who are actively in engaged in doing mathematics and not just talking about it; students of other disciplines benefit from being taught by staff active in mathematics as well as actively engaged in collaborative work.

POINT 5—THE IMPORTANCE OF MAINTAINING A REGIONAL CAPACITY IN UNIVERSITY SCIENCE TEACHING AND RESEARCH

  Every University needs a group of mathematicians developing their field, since research underpins and informs teaching in this all-pervasive subject. Small "critical masses" of specialists should come together to form a subject-focussed department. Whilst there are higher education institutions overseas, where mathematics academics are embedded in other departments, these are usually much larger departments than exist in UK universities and the mathematicians form a self-sufficient, often self-managing subset. It is often the case that those mathematicians in one such department rarely, if ever, interact with those in another department, leading to a loss of opportunity for cross-fertilisation of ideas, sharing experience and so on.

  To be meaningful a "mathematical presence" in an institution must imply the existence of a coherent group of mathematically-trained academics whose specialisms cover the mathematics needs of the courses (including post-graduate courses) on offer. Their specialisms should also be appropriate for supporting the research being carried out in an institution, and thus needs may vary from one institution to another.

  At the HE teaching level, there needs to be a group of people who are well qualified in mathematics and who can be called upon to deliver structured courses in mathematics to support this vital part of these other disciplines. In addition, in schools, teachers need to have time and resources for subject-specific professional development, so that their contact with the living subject can inform and enthuse their pupils. We believe that there is a great need for improved linkage between maths school teachers and their local university maths department. This will aid the provision of enrichment materials to local school maths teachers.

  Inter-alia, data on salaries indicates that nationally there is an undersupply of graduates with high mathematical ability; this undersupply could be met through widened participation. It is firmly believed that action based on local provision can make the most significant contribution to recruitment from non-traditional applicant categories. "Practice-based" mathematics courses, with an appropriate focus, could well prove attractive to these groups, supporting the case for good national provision. Furthermore, in any geographical region, especially an isolated one, reasonable alternatives should be available to prospective students who cannot travel far so that they are not compelled to live away from home in the event the only local university does not accept them.

  Efforts need to be made to attract applicants from non-traditional backgrounds, perhaps to "practice-based" courses, where the immediate employment possibilities will be apparent. Undergraduates working in schools can help in this but, as Smith was at pains to point out, financial incentives can also play a part.

  Finally, the Smith report on mathematics 14-19, and the government's response to it, has placed emphasis on the need to provide a strong subject-specific element to programmes of CPD for mathematics teachers. University-based mathematicians clearly have an important role to play here, and since CPD will largely be delivered through local networks, this is a further argument for taking measures to stop the continuing erosion of the mathematics base through departmental closure.

POINT 6—THE EXTENT TO WHICH THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD INTERVENE TO ENSURE CONTINUING PROVISION OF SUBJECTS OF STRATEGIC NATIONAL OR REGIONAL IMPORTANCE; AND THE MECHANISMS IT SHOULD USE FOR THIS PURPOSE

  This aim would be supported by the recognition that financial incentives, through fee waivers for example, could provide the necessary motivation. In the short term, universities need to maintain, and indeed increase, their contact with schools, through visits or through the Undergraduate Ambassador scheme etc In this connection, a defined role for university departments in "the sustainable local networks", as envisaged in the DfES response to the Inquiry report, could serve to raise the importance of this work in the minds of vice-chancellors.

  The Government may wish to consider a public demonstration of concern for the subject. This might serve to convince pupils and teachers that the prospects of employment are good following a study of mathematics.

  However, in the LMS submission, they recommend that "only through Government intervention can the aims set out in these responses can be achieved." The IMA are fully aware that this situation is very unlikely to occur, and is in favour of the Government "shadowing", as Clarke advised in the DfES Press Release, dated 1st December 2004, "Charles Clarke Seeks Protection for Courses of National Strategic Importance". A copy of this press release can be found attached (annex 2) (not printed).

CONCLUSION

  Mathematics exists as a fundamental discipline in its own right. In addition, through the application of mathematical methods and techniques, it has developed into an essential tool for logical investigations and development in science (including the biological sciences), the social sciences (including health sciences), engineering, technology, economics, finance and business. The list of areas of applications continues to grow.

  Whilst the numbers of those who contribute significantly to the advancement of the fundamental discipline will be relatively small, very many will produce greater understanding or advancement in the areas of application. Yet still more people will use mathematics as part of their everyday life and work and they need a firm grasp of the basic tools of mathematics and the strengths and weaknesses of its applications in their areas of activity. For perhaps the majority, a mathematical training helps to discipline the mind, it develops critical and logical reasoning, and it strengthens both analytical and problem-solving skills.

REFERENCES

  Making Mathematics Count, the report of Professor Adrian Smith's inquiry into mathematics 14-19 (2004).

  DfES Press Release, 1 December 2004—"Charles Clarke Seeks Protection for Courses of National Strategic Importance." (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2004_0209)

January 2005



 
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