University deans defend enrolling students with scant maths

 In AMSI in the news, News

Article by Tim Dodd, Australian Financial Review, 9 August 2015.

Top educators have defended Australian universities’ move away from requiring maths as a prerequisite for science, engineering and commerce degrees in which mathematical knowledge plays a key part.

The chair of the Australian Council of Engineering Deans, Moses Tade, who is also engineering dean at Curtin University, said universities were using “many innovative ways” to teach maths to engineering students who were not up to the necessary standard.

He said his fellow engineering deans would “refute” the notion that “you can’t do engineering without having done intermediate maths”.

Figures released last week show that 41 per cent of Australian universities which offer engineering do not require students to have studied intermediate maths year 12.

And, to the knowledge of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) which produced the study, no university engineering faculties require students to have studied advanced maths in year 12, even though engineering courses are highly mathematical.

President of the Australian Council of Deans of Science Stephen Walker, who is also University of Queensland science dean, said that his university required intermediate year 12 maths as a prerequisite to science degrees and would not alter that stance.

However, only 14 per cent of universities offering science degrees require students to have studied intermediate maths and, speaking in his council of deans role, Professor Walker said the faculties faced a “fairly stark choice” because of funding issues.

DRAWCARD FOR STUDENTS

“If there was a university, or science faculty, struggling and needing more students for financial reasons, they may see that easing prerequisites is one way to get more student load,” he said.

“Then they may back themselves to use the additional income to provide the bridging training in maths. And that might actually work.”

“Do you shrink and potentially have to shed staff? Or do you say ‘we will back ourselves to take more students and fill the gap?'” he asked.

Professor Walker also said that some students with high ATARs decided to study science because they missed out on their first choice and had not done maths at year-12 level.

“Do you turn away a high achieving student who’s got every chance of doing well, because they didn’t do maths?” he asked.

President of the Australian Business Deans Council Ian Palmer, who is also a pro vice chancellor at RMIT University, said the maths used in commerce degrees differed from other disciplines. “It’s not maths so much as it’s business statistics,” he said.

According to the AMSI paper, only 13 per cent of universities which offer commerce degrees require year-12 students to have studied intermediate maths. Professor Palmer said that business faculties were able to train students up to the required level.

The AMSI paper also revealed that none of the 10 NSW universities require intermediate maths for courses in science, engineering and commerce.

University of Sydney science dean Trevor Hambley said he applauded AMSI “for highlighting the need to ensure students are aware of the crucial importance of maths proficiency for undertaking study and future careers in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] and related areas such as medicine”.

He said that introducing maths as a prerequisite would be one way of contributing to this awareness. “If universities were to do so, we would need to have a long lead time to ensure that their introduction did not impact unfairly on students who have already made their choices,” he said.

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