Maths degrees need a new formula – but not greater specialisation

To make maths programmes viable, we must make them more attractive to a wider pool of applicants, says Jens Marklof

March 1, 2024
A mathematician works on the blackboard
Source: iStock/gorodenkoff

Maths provision in the UK is being strangely squeezed, with potentially disastrous consequences.

More school pupils sit A-level maths than any other subject, and there’s a growing demand in industry and business for graduates with training in the mathematical sciences. Initial findings from labour market research commissioned by the London Mathematical Society suggest that between 2018 and 2022 there was a 53 per cent growth in the number of job opportunities requiring advanced maths skills.

And yet we are witnessing cuts and closures to maths provision at several well-established but lower-tariff higher education institutions. According to a report just published by Ortus Economic Research, universities in the quintile with the lowest entry requirements have seen student numbers fall by 52 per cent since 2017.

There are two principal reasons for this. The first is the government’s decision to remove the student number cap in England in 2015. Combined with grade inflation at A level, this has led some elite institutions to dramatically increase their mathematics programmes’ intakes. The rationale is simple: mathematics is a cost-effective subject to teach, and it is easier than in lab-based disciplines to recruit academic staff who are at the top of their game, boosting the institution’s return to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), too. But all this comes at a time when, while the student population across all subjects has increased, the number of students opting for maths has remained almost constant.

Lower-tariff programmes finding it hard to fill their places, higher-tariff programmes thriving: it’s easy to look at that as a simple rationalisation. We maintain the same number of graduates, just at fewer institutions. But by not opening maths degrees to more students from non-traditional backgrounds, we give up on social mobility, diversity, key policy objectives and even national security.

According to the Ortus Economic Research paper, maths degrees fuel similar rates of progression to further study or employment irrespective of background or, crucially, of entry requirements. And most of those graduates will go into top jobs – managerial or professional roles in sectors such as finance, information and communication, and professional services.

Moreover, mathematics no longer just underpins many areas crucial to the UK economy. The mathematical sciences are right at the heart of today’s key disruptive technologies, driving forward cybersecurity (the UK’s national security agency, GCHQ, is the largest employer of pure mathematicians in the country), data science, artificial intelligence, quantum tech and epidemiology. The global challenges we are facing, such as climate change, also require new quantitative tools that mathematical scientists are best placed to develop.

Hence, we need both to train more mathematical scientists and to ensure they have the skills to work across discipline boundaries. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is well aware of this, as evidenced by the policy he announced last September of requiring all school pupils in England to study maths to the age of 18. But if he is serious about implementing this, he must respond to the fact that many of the universities cutting, closing or considering changes to their maths programmes are the very institutions that help to train the maths teachers he’ll need to achieve his laudable aim.

But to make maths programmes viable across the country, we must make them more attractive to a wider pool, especially those from currently under-represented backgrounds. Partly this is a question of updating perceptions. The image of the lonely maths genius is something many talented students cannot identify with, but modern mathematics is as much about teamwork and impact on real-world problems as it is about tackling incredibly complex problems. 

But universities falling short of recruitment targets must resist the temptation to pivot – as some are doing – to offering highly specialised subjects, such as data science or AI, at the expense of their general maths provision. This is short-sighted. The graduate with a broad mathematics degree can move into any number of fields, while a highly specialised degree is far more beholden to the vagaries of the future economy.

On the other hand, many existing maths degree programmes have not embraced the changes brought about by the digital revolution and have failed to provide pathways to the wide-ranging applications mathematics has to offer. This needs to change.

To address these issues, the London Mathematical Society is convening the UK’s first Maths Summit on 12 March at the Science Museum. The summit will bring together academics and teachers, policymakers, politicians and leaders in industry and higher education to showcase the value of maths and to present a vision of a future powered by the mathematical sciences. This week, we convened a round table of politicians and university administrators in Westminster to share experiences and best practice.

The challenge is to find a new formula for maths degrees that makes them as attractive to the undergraduates of tomorrow as to the university and business leaders of today. Unlike in school, there might be more than one correct formula. Please show us your working.

Jens Marklof is president of the London Mathematical Society and professor of mathematical physics at the University of Bristol.

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Reader's comments (1)

All well and good, but schools are deliberately squeezing entry to A level maths. A vast majority of schools now require a Grade 7 at GCSE (equivalent to the old A grade) for A level, and an 8 for Further Maths. A similar restriction is applied to almost all science A levels, with a 6 or 7 in maths being required. This almost halves the pool of science candidates. It's not clear why the 'grade inflation' for these subjects is being demanded, but one strong possibility is that schools do not have enough specialist maths teachers to cope with the increased demand.