Memorandum 54
Submission from the Council for the Mathematical
Sciences
STUDENTS AND
UNIVERSITIES
The Council for the Mathematical Sciences (comprising
the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the London
Mathematical Society, the Royal Statistical Society, the Edinburgh
Mathematical Society and the Operational Research Society) is
pleased to present its evidence for the Innovation, Universities,
Science and Skills Select Committee's Inquiry into Students
and Universities.
Our response focuses on matters relating specifically
to mathematical sciences. As a result not all aspects of the Committee's
inquiry are addressed in the text below.
GENERAL COMMENTS
1. The geographical remit of this inquiry
is not clear. The terms of reference refer to UK HEIs but subsequently
only to HEFCE; given that education is a devolved issue the remit
should be clarified in the Committee's report.
The effectiveness of the process for admission
to HEIs, including Alevels, Advanced Diplomas, apprenticeships
and university entrance tests.
2. Current Alevel mathematics is doing a reasonable
job; numbers taking Alevel Mathematics are increasing[164]
following a slump in the change to the ASA2 system, with dramatic
increases in Further Mathematics thanks to the Further Mathematics
Network.[165]
3. However, Alevel mathematics fails to distinguish
between highachieving students; an "A*" grade may help
to some extent, but only if it rewards mathematical thought rather
than simply a higher degree of accuracy.
4. It is unclear that the proposed diplomas
in science or engineering will have anything close to the content
of the current mathematics Alevel, which suggests that these
would not be appropriate preparation for universitylevel mathematical
sciences programmes. We endorse the February 2008 statement by
the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) on mathematics
in diplomas,[166]
noting the importance of mathematics training to the further study
of a range of other science and engineering subjects.
The implementation and success of widening participation
initiatives, and the impact of the current funding regime on these
objectives
5. Successful initiatives in mathematical
sciences include the HEFCEfunded More Maths Grads project,[167]
Masterclasses run by the Royal Institution[168]
and the various "Challenges" organised by the UK Mathematics
Trust.[169]
Levels of funding for, and the balance between,
teaching and research in UK HEIs, and the adequacy of financial
support for the development of innovative teaching methods and
teaching/research integration.
6. Research funding from the EPSRC Mathematical
Sciences Programme has been diminishing year by year—from
£21 million in 200607 to £16 million in 200809[170]
and £14 million in 200910—in favour of multidisciplinary
research themes. The CMS is concerned that this is a move away
from funding basic research in mathematical sciences, which will
ultimately be to the long term detriment of the research base
across science and engineering.
7. There is concern at the low level of the HEFCE
unit of resource for mathematics given that contact hours are
high and that labourintensive student support is required.
8. We are also concerned about the effect
of Full Economic Costing on a subject with relatively low grant
volume. This is a recent policy change whose effects need to be
monitored carefully for unintended consequences.
9. Good teaching and research go handinhand
in the mathematical sciences and should not be pitted against
each other. The design of undergraduate mathematical sciences
degree courses can be guided by recent research and advanced courses
within them often are.
10. Teaching standards in mathematics are
generally very good but often involve large classes, with many
in excess of 200 students. At these levels the lecturer is not
easily able to interact with the audience; similar considerations
apply to tutorial sizes.
11. MSc courses are often the vehicle by
which recent research is disseminated and for the training and
recruitment of PhD students—it is a considerable blow that
EPSRC's move to narrowlydefined "Knowledge Transfer Accounts"
will effectively withdraw funding from the more "general"
mathematical sciences MSc courses. Responsibility for funding
for the second cycle is unclear.
The suitability of methods of assessing excellence
in teaching and research and the impact of research assessment
on these activities
12. There is general confidence in peer
review as a means for research assessment but rather less so in
any formulae based on mechanically collected data.[171]
13. The Research Assessment Exercise has been
a mixed blessing for teaching and research. On the positive side,
it has encouraged staff to maintain their interest in research
throughout their career which also has a positive effect on their
teaching. On the negative side, it has encouraged shorttermism;
many of the most substantial results in mathematical sciences
have taken many years to come to fruition, and this can be at
odds with the need to produce publications on a regular basis.
14. The RAE's emphasis on research groups
can lead to patchy coverage of some areas of mathematical sciences
in some departments—thus having a negative effect on the
undergraduate curriculum.
15. The RAE has been a driver of concentration
of research into an increasingly small number of "centres
of excellence". This may be advantageous where investment
in large scale equipment is needed, but is not necessary or suitable
in mathematical sciences; departmental closures following RAEbased
funding decisions have a number of effects, including the creation
of mathematics "deserts" in parts of the country.[172]
The availability and adequacy of training in teaching
methods for UK academics
16. The current training provision offered
in many HEIs to UK academics in mathematics is very poor, and
makes poor use of valuable time. It is often generic and pays
no attention to the special way that mathematics and statistics
must be taught; this is widely recognised by the community. It
is vital that it is replaced by proper subject specific training
such as that offered by the Higher Education Academy's MSOR Subject
Centre[173]
and currently being piloted at the University of Birmingham.[174]
This needs proper funding.
The responsibilities of the Government and HEFCE
in assuring (a) the quality of teaching provision and learning
opportunities in UK HEIs; and (b) the balance between teaching
and research in HEIs
17. Some aspects of funding and support in these
areas fall between the two stools of HEFCE and research councils
(EPSRC in the case of mathematical sciences). Much more "joinedup"
action is required here. The lack of clarity in responsibility
for second cycle funding (eg for one year Masters courses) is
one result here.
18. Mathematics support groups, dropin sessions
and small tutorials are all essential to back up teaching in lectures
and Government support for these is vital. A difficulty with mathematics
is that one tends to get "stuck". Giving help to students
who are stuck is an essential but very labourintensive, and hence
expensive, business.
Potential methodologies for the standardisation
of degree classifications within, and between, HEIs
19. Degree classifications cannot easily
be standardised across different subjects; there are inherent
differences between disciplines that would hinder attempts to
do so. Mathematics tends to have a much wider (often bimodal)
distribution of marks compared with other subjects and this needs
to be carefully considered. For individual mathematical sciences
students the profile of module marks may show more variation than
in some other disciplines. Some university regulations require
that all modules are passed, and this can fetter the professional
judgement of boards of examiners in mathematical sciences when
determining degree classification.
Any further action required by the Government
and/or HEFCE to ensure that UK HEIs offer students a world class
educational experience
20. The Government should ensure that the UK
can recruit, motivate and train the best possible university lecturers,
excellent in both teaching and research. To do this we need to
make it clear that there is a great career available for them.
An apparent reduction in support for basic research in mathematical
sciences in the UK works against this.
December 2008
164 See, for instance, the 14 August 2008 DCSF press
release at
http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/localauthorities/index.cfm?action=content&contentID=15518 Back
165
Increases credited to the FMN in State of the Nation Report: Science
and Maths Education (Royal Society, September 2008), numbered
page 60, available from http://royalsociety.org/downloaddoc.asp?id=5698 Back
166
Available from http://www.acmeuk.org/news.asp?id=91 Back
167
More Maths Gradswww.moremathsgrads.org.uk Back
168
RI Masterclasses http://www.rigb.org/contentControl?action=displayContent&id=00000000844 Back
169
UKMT Challengeshttp://www.mathcomp.leeds.ac.uk/Maths%20Challenges.htm Back
170
The EPSRC Mathematical Sciences Programme budget for the current
year is given at
http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/ResearchFunding/Programmes/Maths/Intro.htm Back
171
See, for instance, Citation Statistics (International Mathematical
Union, et al, June 2008) for a mathematicsfocused critique of
bibliometric approaches (see http://www.mathunion.org/fileadmin/IMU/Report/CitationStatistics.pdf) Back
172
For a more detailed treatment of the negative effects of concentration
of research see Keeping HE Maths Where it Counts: the decline
in provision of mathematical sciences courses with more moderate
entry requirementsdrivers and implications (Council for the Mathematical
Sciences, 2007) available from http://www.cms.ac.uk/reports/2007/steele_report.pdf Back
173
See http://www.mathstore.ac.uk
; The HEA MOSR Network distance learning courses on "Teaching
of statistics in HE" are run in association with the Royal
Statistical Society's Centre for Statistical Education (http://www.rsscse.org.uk/activities/tsihe.asp) Back
174
See http://www.hr.bham.ac.uk/development/courses/landt/MSS013_Associate_module_in_Learning_and_Teaching_in_Higher_Education_mathematics.shtml Back
