A ten-year plan for mathematics – too little, too late

There’s really only one problem with the National Committee for Mathematical Sciences’ ten year plan for mathematics in Australia, and that problem is political not mathematical: Ten years is simply too long. It’s not a bad plan, but it’s impossible to read without simply asking ‘why are these things not being done today’?

maths planOnly 14% of STEM university subjects require students to have studied intermediate mathematics in Year 12, so intermediate maths should become a prerequisite for STEM subjects.  The only real question here should be (a) how is it possible that we are in the current position where you can start a STEM subject with no maths and (b) how can we fix this as soon as possible. A ten year plan is nice and safe and achievable, but it consigns a generation of students to not doing decent maths, and by extension does irreparable harm to the following generation too.

There seems to be no sensible debate that jobs and competitiveness in the modern world revolve around areas of endeavour that require maths. Our world involves technology and technology needs maths. So if we’re all agreed, why on earth are we prepared to fiddle around the edges of this issue? Of course the answer lies in money and resources and a willingness of government to actually attack this issue head-on. I don’t blame the report’s authors for finding a middle way. I blame the government for not have the vision and will to really attack this.

Now, I know that the government has not yet responded. But as Einstein may have said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What possible indication is there that this government is going to do anything different from following on with the same funding and policy decisions that got us here in the first place? The words ‘innovation’ and ‘clever country’ will be trotted out but there will be no real effort put into the areas that might make them more than slogans.

The news that Sydney University has changed the prerequisites for a number of its courses to require at least 2-unit maths at the HSC from 2019 is good. But to get more students doing the HSC in maths requires teachers; and it also requires students who’ve had decent maths teaching leading up to the last two years in high school. That means government funding and policy changes simply because the outcomes are reliant on the availability of properly trained teachers throughout the school system.

Professor Geoff Prince, Director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, said:

This plan is a clear vision for governments, universities and industry to shape mathematical sciences over the next 10 years, starting now. Fundamental to that vision is education. We know that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations will need science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills, and that maths is at the heart of this skill set. If we’re not preparing our teachers and students the way we should, Australia will be left behind by the rest of the world.

It’s not that Australia ‘will be left behind’, Australia is being left behind. This report serves to further highlight the problem and to recommend and a completely achievable way forward; but even if it was implemented now, we’re taking ten years to get to the place many other nations are at today.

Further, the elephant in the room that the report fails to address for me is that it’s not just people doing STEM subjects who require a decent maths education in the modern world. As a society we believe it essential that every child have studied Shakespeare and so make English a compulsory topic. But we are happy that students can complete high school with only a vague understanding of the fundamentals which guide our modern world. Every child  should be taught maths all the way through school as a matter of course.

In any case changes need to be made now, today. Every year that passes sees a further cohort of innumerate graduates who are unable to teach and inspire the next generation, let alone take on the rest of the world themselves.  If you recognise the problem is not just academic, but directly impacts our competitiveness as individuals and as a nation – there’s no excuse for not making it one of our top priorities.

The decade plan for maths in Australia is a good report with achievable outcomes if the government was to attack them today. Realistically though that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be too little, too late.

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