Numbers going the wrong way: maths teaching and research in Australia

Maths teaching and research is under threat in Australia, according to a review from the Australian Academy of Science.

The mid-term review, falling halfway through Australia’s 10-year plan for maths, highlights the decline in numbers of secondary mathematics teachers and the effect of COVID-19 on the university sector.

The pandemic has triggered losses to the maths research community, and exacerbated the gender imbalance.

“These impacts affect not just mathematical sciences’ research outputs but also the quality of mathematical and statistical education available at all levels in Australia,” says Professor Alan Walsh, chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Mathematical Science, which oversaw the review.

The review recommends continuing to develop programs to improve maths teaching in schools, and “urgently addressing the cuts to mathematical courses at universities”.

Read more: How should we be teaching maths at school?

The COVID-19 pandemic placed a squeeze on maths researchers, who are mostly employed at universities which faced a precipitous income drop in 2020.

The Job-Ready Graduates package, introduced by the Morrison Government in October 2020, aimed to increase the number of students studying mathematics at university by making the subject cheaper for students.

But, the review points out, the government funding didn’t increase enough to balance this, meaning universities saw a 17% cut in funding per mathematics student.

Subsequent university restructures affected maths sorely.

“Redundancies in several strong mathematics departments across the country are, and continue to be, at least partially attributable to the projected cuts,” reads the review.

The review also recommends that the importance of maths for responding to national challenges and informing policy be emphasised.

“This must be paired with infrastructure and resourcing to support excellent mathematical and statistical work for the research that underpins many solutions to contemporary challenges, and to ensure high-quality education to equip the next generation of Australians with the mathematical science knowledge needed for the future,” says committee member Professor Kerrie Mengersen.

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