Courses face cut in maths collapse

August 23, 2002

The dramatic decline in the number of students sitting A-level maths has plunged already struggling university maths departments further into crisis.

With almost 20 per cent fewer maths entries at A level this year, many departments fear for their future. Some have even offered places to candidates who studied the subject for only a year.

Terry Lyons, professor of pure mathematics at Oxford University and vice-president of the London Mathematical Society, said the slump would hit maths departments twice. Not only would fewer people study maths, but fewer would take up science and engineering. Teaching non-mathematicians is core work for many departments, but falling numbers have led other departments to teach more maths themselves.

Professor Lyons said: "It is essential for the student interest that they are taught by professional mathematicians. But it can require considerable strength and vision about the importance of mathematics at the top of an institution to resist the pressures."

At Essex University, the budget committee threatened to shut the maths department because student numbers had fallen and outside teaching work had dwindled. The department was told not to accept single-honours undergraduates or taught postgraduates. It has until the end of the year to draft a rescue plan and it has been allowed to recruit via clearing - it is expecting 12 undergraduates.

Liverpool John Moores University is offering maths and engineering places to candidates without A levels in the subject. John McCarthy, head of student recruitment, said: "We have decided to take people with the AS level and cross our fingers. We will look at providing remedial maths in the first semester."

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has confirmed that other universities have been taking students with low grades or without maths A level.

A recent London Mathematical Society survey found that a quarter of maths departments faced "some significant threat", such as degrees being cut, departments being split into groups in other disciplines, and redundancies making departments unviable.

The survey found that departments in Russell Group universities were doing well and that new universities had suffered most. But the society said that departments at old universities outside the Russell Group faced threats.

The fall in maths A-level entries is thought to be a result of a new, tougher syllabus, which students have found too difficult.

* The Department for Education and Skills has promised to investigate claims that four universities offered places to a reporter posing as a student who had failed his A levels. Glamorgan and Portsmouth universities were said to have offered places on foundation courses, but East London and Greenwich offered entry to degrees on the basis of AS levels.

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