Big overhaul saves maths at Essex

May 16, 2003

Essex University's mathematics department has averted closure by taking radical steps to attract more students and keep research alive.

Just over a year ago, the university announced it would have to cut its single-honours mathematics degree because of a lack of demand and the future of the whole department hung in the balance.

But John Dowden, head of department and professor of applied mathematics, has launched "a bold experiment". The department will be renamed "mathematical sciences" and take a pragmatic approach, he says.

Strong strategic links with other university departments will be key to what is thought to be a unique structure. Staff will continue to be responsible to the department of mathematical sciences for teaching and administrative duties. But their research will be based in other departments, such as computer science, and accounting, finance and management. All future appointments will be made jointly.

Researchers will be returned to the research assessment exercise as members of these departments, rather than the mathematical sciences department. The mathematics department has historically been small at Essex and last year scored 3a in the RAE.

Professor Dowden said: "We will be strongly outward-looking. We cannot afford to take an isolationist view of mathematics. We are part of the wider community."

The department has already held a maths day for teachers and will be running a similar programme for 15-year-olds in June. It will introduce a BSc course that will give students classroom experience before undertaking a postgraduate certificate in education.

There have been no redundancies - in fact, the department is recruiting three more lecturers - but several staff are retiring early. Early student recruitment figures are up on last year.

New degree schemes such as mathematics joint honours with accounting, management or economics have been devised. The early progress of the department will be monitored annually, with a major review after three years.

Maths courses across the country have struggled to recruit suitable students as the number of candidates sitting the A level fell by one fifth last year. Sussex University, for example, is almost halving its mathematics department in response to budget cuts. This autumn the number of teaching staff will fall from 19 to ten.

Charles Goldie, professor of statistics and dean of the school of mathematical sciences, said: "Like other maths departments, we are finding it hard to recruit good enough students." He said a concentration of maths was occurring nationally, with six big departments at Warwick, Leeds, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and University College London.

Some of these were expanding by up to 50 per cent, which Professor Goldie said could spell disaster for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

With fewer candidates taking maths A level, many departments were scrabbling to fill places. He warned that this year's recruitment figures could be critical to the survival of many departments.

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