Academics fear for jobs as maths and statistics major dropped

Staff nerves fray as whistleblower row university calls time on course

January 21, 2020
Maths problems
Source: iStock

Mathematicians at Perth’s Murdoch University fear their jobs may be on the line, with a specialist course caught in the crossfire of an unfolding whistleblower saga.

Murdoch said its decision to phase out its BSc in mathematics and statistics was the result of a course review, and would have little effect on staff. “Mathematics and statistics are fundamental to the courses offered by Murdoch University and will continue to be critical subjects taught at Murdoch,” provost Romy Lawson said.

The university said that it did not expect teaching positions to decline; in fact, the opposite may be the case. “Potentially, revised and refreshed course offerings [may be] designed to increase student enrolments and create new opportunities,” Murdoch said in a statement.

But staff highlighted that the course’s scrapping followed three academics’ decision to criticise the university’s international student recruitment activities in a 2019 current affairs programme.

The trio – Gerd Schröder-Turk, Graeme Hocking and Duncan Farrow – all teach maths or maths and statistics. Professor Hocking is head of the discipline while Dr Schröder-Turk is the academic staff-elected member of Murdoch’s senate.

Staff said that Murdoch’s plan would make it the only university in Western Australia without a mathematics major. They said that majors were a source of honours students, some of whom pursued doctorates and became an essential part of academic life. “Cancelling the major leads to the inevitable decline of the discipline,” said one source, who asked not to be named.

“People will leave, just through natural attrition, and it will be difficult to recruit good-quality people in the future.”

Another source said that it made no sense to jettison a major while retaining its constituent units. “[Students] can’t get that qualification, which might mean they don’t take the unit, which means the unit becomes in jeopardy, which means staff become in jeopardy.”

Murdoch said that it revised its courses regularly to ensure they met the needs of students and employers. “We evaluate past and future student enrolments and graduations alongside emerging trends in the workforce. Some current offerings become revised and refreshed, and new courses added,” the university said.

Times Higher Education understands that no new students will be accepted into the major from the second semester of 2020, after an assessment found that commencements in the course were languishing in single figures.

But a source said that the course boasted more graduates than initial enrolments, as students signed on mid-stream. “A lot of students pick up a major or minor in mathematics or statistics through the course of their degrees. They suddenly realise, ‘I really need this’.”

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