Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from the London Mathematical Society

  The London Mathematical Society welcomes this opportunity to bring to the attention of the Science and Technology Committee the continuing erosion in the national mathematics base, particularly in universities. Mathematics underpins the sciences, engineering and business—the loss of the UK's mathematics base critically weakens the very areas on which our wealth and health depend.

  The London Mathematical Society is the UK's learned society for mathematics. Founded in 1865 for the promotion and extension of mathematical knowledge, the Society is concerned with all branches of mathematics and its applications. It is an independent and self-financing charity, with a membership of over 2,600 drawn from all parts of the UK and overseas. Its principal activities are: the organisation of meetings and conferences; the publication of periodicals and books; the provision of financial support for mathematical activities; and contributing to public debates on issues related to mathematics research and education. It works collaboratively with other mathematical bodies worldwide. It is the UK adhering body to the International Mathematical Union and is a member of the UK Council for the Mathematical Sciences, which comprises the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the Royal Statistical Society together with the London Mathematical Society.

  The importance of mathematics in underpinning 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, in the social and health sciences. The need of a healthy economy for an increased flow of persons with good mathematical skills has been recognised in the Roberts Report, in the Government Response to it and in its subsequent Science and innovation investment framework 2004-14. Concerns about the health of the subject in school have led to a programme of reform based on the recommendations of the Smith Report. The needs and reforms identified by these inquiries require a strong and diversified mathematics presence in the HE sector. This cannot be achieved without strategic and coherent use of funding and other mechanisms to fulfil the accepted national needs.

  The erosion of national provision, through the closure or merger of departments, recently headlined in the case of chemistry at Exeter, is by no means new but has been proceeding in many areas of the physical sciences and engineering, not least in mathematics. The Council of the London Mathematical Society has been extremely concerned at this loss and, in the last few years, has made representations to the Vice-Chancellors of universities where the Society has heard that such losses are under consideration. Seven universities have been contacted over the past three years—an outline of the situation at one of them (Hull) is attached at Annex A. The Society drew up a Statement of Policy on Mathematics in Universities, which is attached at Annex B.

  The following response is aligned to the points identified in the Select Committee's call for evidence (Annex C)(Not printed). References are at Annex D.

The impact of HEFCE's research funding formulae, as applied to Research Assessment Exercise ratings, on the financial viability of university science departments

  Decisions on closure of departments are the responsibility of individual institutions; but such decisions are largely determined by the funding mechanisms and formulas adopted by HEFCE. The way in which these are operating are particularly damaging to mathematics departments, and the health of UK mathematics. Mathematics, requiring primarily "people" costs, is disproportionately dependent on the funding councils, compared with the other sciences and engineering which draw heavily from the research councils.

  There is a fundamental lack of transparency which frustrates rational planning: the relationship between RAE grades and funding is not known in advance. The sharp cut off in the funding model adopted subsequent to the last exercise has meant that university departments delivering good degree courses, engaged in research of national importance, have been targeted for closure. It is therefore quite possible that the intentions of the experts on the RAE 2001 panel have been reversed, and there is no mechanism to prevent this situation being repeated in RAE 2008.

  Many university courses properly involve a serious mathematics component. The interplay of the teaching and research funding models encourages non-mathematics departments to teach this material themselves, effectively using teaching money to subsidise their research work and improve their future RAE grades.

  Such changes have the immediate effect of damaging mathematics departments in some institutions. The health of the whole science and engineering complex is damaged by the loss of mathematicians and their contributions. These changes are often made without reference to the immediate or long-term needs of the students.

The desirability of increasing the concentration of research in a small number of university departments, and the consequences of such a trend

  The desirability of concentration will vary from subject to subject; the model appropriate for subjects requiring access to large and expensive specialist equipment is inappropriate for mathematics. While mathematics is no longer dependent (if it ever was) just on pen and paper, the usual expensive facility needed by mathematicians, high-power computing, is a resource shared with other subjects. The critical mass needed for successful collaborative mathematical research is not great, and collaborations can flourish without physical proximity.

  An increased concentration of research in a few departments will restrict student opportunity to study mathematics as a live subject in a research-active department. Teaching with conviction depends on doing one's own mathematics; when mathematics is alive in one's own life, one can convey mathematics to students as a living subject, not a set of dead and boring rules from the past.

  Concentration, moreover, will damage the symbiotic relationship between mathematical scientists and other disciplines in research. The vitality of application-driven research in mathematics depends crucially on research-active mathematicians being available.

The implications for university science teaching of changes in the weightings given to science subjects in the teaching funding formula

  Mathematics teaching is inadequately resourced by the current formula. The weightings stand in need of a fundamental review; to base a revision principally on current subject costings merely perpetuates an unsatisfactory position.

  Mathematics teaching is in practice very costly in staff time. The acquisition of mathematical skills requires the doing of mathematics (it is not good enough for the student to be an attentive listener and an efficient information processor). Thus, in addition to funding for lectures and associated information-transfer activities, extra funding is required to pay for the essential learning structures in which students learn to do mathematics themselves, not merely see it being done. Such intensive teaching, with a high staff: student ratio, is the mathematical equivalent to the science or engineering laboratory.

  The mathematics community has welcomed the broadening access agenda; its successful implementation in mathematics requires that resources intended to support these students are expended on subject-specific support.

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 is an evolving subject, and honours mathematics degrees are properly taught in research-active departments where mathematics is being done. We reiterate two earlier points. First, a good mathematics programme can be taught by a collection of mathematicians with different research areas; there is no essential need for large numbers in every area (a model promoted by the research funding formulae). Second, there is no essential need in practice for concentration of mathematics departments—it is neither desirable nor necessary to have teaching-only departments in regard to honours-level courses.

  Moreover, even those universities not teaching mathematics at this level will need mathematicians to support research and teaching in other courses and departments.

The importance of maintaining a regional capacity in university science teaching and research

  There is a pressing need for widened participation in mathematics courses, from single honours to joint and combined degrees which provide solid mathematical understanding to areas of application. This can only be achieved by ensuring that there is access to mathematics courses not only in all regions, but also in a wide spectrum of HE institutions. It implies that there is access to mathematics by mature students, those studying part time, and by entrants from non-traditional backgrounds. Recent HEFCE data show that several of the universities rethinking their mathematics provision are in regions of limited access.

  Mathematicians in universities offer other benefits at a local level—for example the CPD needs of mathematics teachers (which are highly subject-specific) cannot be met if there are mathematical "deserts". Regional Development Agencies will want to have the input of research-led departments into their strategies for local business and industry.

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

  The great technological advances of the twentieth century have their origins in blue-skies mathematical research, with British-based research prominent. Our excellence, and its far-reaching but as yet unknown implications, is at threat (see report of the recent International Review of Mathematics Research in the UK) from a shrinking of our university base.

  The UK needs to increase its output of mathematicians and those with qualifications requiring strong mathematics skills. Such skills are needed at all levels, in teaching, research, in the finance sector, in business and industry. Mathematics graduates are eminently employable in well-paid careers. Yet the numbers pursuing mathematics and maths-based subjects into higher education are falling. The Government's responses to the Roberts Report and the Smith Inquiry have recognised the strategic importance of mathematics.

  We urgently need to increase the output of mathematics graduates, and only through Government intervention can the aims set out in the responses in the previous paragraph be achieved. Two actions are needed by Government to address this shortfall.

  First, the Select Committee has rightly identified the need to address the erosion of provision in strategic science subjects as a critical point of intervention, as this limits the UK's potential to produce the numbers of graduates in STEM subjects that the country needs.

  Second, yet more action must be taken to ensure that more young people enter mathematics courses in universities in order to produce enough well-qualified people to meet national demands. This in turn relies on having enough well-qualified mathematics teachers in schools to motivate and develop pupils' mathematical ability. Unless this can be achieved then the negative feedback (fewer maths students leads to fewer maths teachers leads to fewer maths students, etc) will result in ever-diminishing numbers of qualified people.

  Possibilities to increase the pool of mathematics graduates include: an initial injection of additional grants/bursaries/fee waivers to encourage good students to take mathematics degrees; additional money to support university mathematics staff to provide CPD work for teachers both to re-energise the teachers and update their knowledge; money to bring all teachers teaching mathematics up to mathematics degree level knowledge (currently 30% of such teachers do not have mathematics degrees). Money is needed to support academics in setting up programmes to work in schools to inspire school students to take up science at A level and beyond; in this respect further support is needed for the schemes run by the TTA—the SAS scheme which pays undergraduates to teach in schools and encourages them to take up a teaching qualification after graduation, and the UAS scheme (initially set up by Simon Singh) which supports universities in offering accredited modules supporting science and mathematics teachers in schools.


    —  The loss of the mathematics base and of mathematics courses in universities threatens not just mathematics itself but also the subjects and sectors that draw on mathematics—from the natural sciences and engineering to economics and business.

    —  The loss of institutions offering good mathematics course provision (in some areas leaving "deserts") deprives many people of the opportunity of studying mathematics and offering their skills in teaching, industry, business and research.

    —  The primary cause for this loss of provision is the way in which funding for mathematics is provided by the funding (including research) councils, which fails to reflect the nature and needs of mathematics, leading to apparently "uneconomic" mathematics departments.

    —  Mechanisms based entirely on student demand are inadequate to preserve our mathematical base until the crucial increase in numbers is achieved, other mechanisms are needed.

February 2005

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