The UK cannot afford to cut the M from STEM

Rishi Sunak's plan for mathematics to age 18 would come too late to save many university departments, says Ulrike Tillmann

February 5, 2023
A woman cuts the flower off a rose stem
Source: iStock

Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement that everyone in England should study mathematics up to the age of 18 was welcome. As he said in his speech, “in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before. And letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down.”

But Sunak’s plan has one glaring omission: higher education.

The arithmetic for university mathematics departments across the UK increasingly does not add up. Since the abolition of student number caps by George Osborne, some institutions have been drawing in record numbers of students, while others are struggling to recruit sustainable cohorts. As universities face ever-greater financial pressure from high inflation and real-terms declines in the value of the domestic tuition fee, these recruitment problems put the departments concerned under threat.

The big recruiters tend to be the larger, older departments at Russell Group universities. In that sense, mathematics is becoming an almost exclusively high-tariff, big-city degree. Elsewhere, we risk seeing the emergence of “maths deserts” – swathes of the country with no opportunities for maths education beyond A level.

Maths deserts would be bad news for the nation. An ongoing flow of mathematicians from all backgrounds maximises the talent pool available to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. Maths may not offer immediate results in terms of innovation and economic growth, but – as Sunak’s announcement implicitly recognises – it underpins every scientific and technological leap forward, from space travel to shortening ambulance waiting times.

Research by Deloitte estimated that the mathematical sciences already add more than £200 billion to the UK economy. As Baroness Brown, chair of the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee recently commented, “without a sufficiently skilled STEM workforce, we are hindering the potential to unlock productivity and economic growth or achieve ambitions for net zero, energy security or becoming a ‘science and technology superpower’.

The avoidance of maths deserts is also necessary to fulfil the government’s ambition to level up the country. Mathematics is one of the best degrees in terms of future earnings; Deloitte calculated the salary premium for advanced maths skills to be around £8,000 a year.

However, students from lower-income and BAME backgrounds, as well as mature students, are much less likely to go to university outside their local area. So if they live in a maths desert, any hopes of using a maths degree to obtain upward social mobility will be a mirage.

Even in areas where high-quality mathematics provision exists, financial pressures may limit access for non-traditional students. That is especially true for mature learners. For instance, a series of recent policy directions, such as the tripling of tuition fees, are putting severe strain on lifelong learning in general, and on Birkbeck, University of London, in particular, 88 per cent of whose students are over the age of 21 and 65 per cent of whom are from BAME backgrounds.

As a result, Birkbeck’s mathematics and statistics department stands to lose almost half its teaching staff. But, as stated in a joint letter signed by the presidents of the UK’s mathematical sciences societies, this may “render the Birkbeck degree in mathematics and statistics untenable”.

If universities across the country follow Birkbeck’s lead, maths deserts will become a reality. Though the funding cuts for departments may be slow to begin with, their impact will reduce the scope and diversity of the mathematics pipeline. Grant holders, for instance, will see the writing on the wall and leverage their funding to secure positions elsewhere – and the loss of their funding and status will make the demise of their former department all the more likely. Such “academic flight” has already been seen at the University of Leicester, for instance.

If Sunak remains prime minister long enough to implement his plan, there will be more people qualified to study maths at university and there will be an increased demand for maths teachers. And even if his plans are not implemented, it is inevitable that maths will become more important as the role of technology in our daily lives and the economy increases. All this will drive demand for university courses.

But it will take years for any effect to be felt by university departments in terms of increased student demand. By then, if we are not careful, many may have already closed, and rebuilding departments is as difficult as re-greening a desert. In reality, it would be the large Russell Group departments that would absorb any new demand that might arise.

If the government is serious about its scientific and egalitarian ambitions, it needs to act now to ensure that the subject that Carl Friedrich Gauss called “the queen of the sciences” remains a common denominator across English universities.

Ulrike Tillmann is president of the London Mathematical Society.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles