Essex closure highlights worrying maths trend

March 8, 2002

Essex University is to cut its single-honours maths degrees in response to falling demand. The department recruited 14 home and European Union students to the department last autumn.

A spokesperson said: "Even if we managed to maintain undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment rates, we would still only have 60 students in the department in 2004."

The university plans to establish a mathematics institute to support the teaching of maths in the university and does not anticipate job losses.

The Essex department is small. It received a 3a in the research assessment exercise, the only department in the university to receive less than a four. The spokesperson said: "While applications to maths have been falling, applications to our computer science department and electronic systems engineering department have been rising significantly. Maths will continue to be taught as a subsidiary subject in these departments."

In 1997, Essex cut its chemistry courses. "Over a period of years, we have restructured our departments away from the traditional maths, chemistry and physics towards areas such as computer science," the spokesperson said. Nationally, maths applications fell this year by 12 per cent.

Peter Saunders, professor of applied mathematics at King's College London and chairman of the school mathematical committee of the London Mathematical Society, said: "This is a worrying trend. New universities in particular have merged maths departments with other departments. As mathematicians retire, they tend not to be replaced and you see a gradual erosion of maths teaching. This is particularly serious as the new universities might have supplied maths teachers in schools."

Professor Saunders added: "Many biochemists and physicists move between industry and universities. There is not so much maths done in industry, and mathematicians are concentrated in universities. A declining university base is therefore serious."

He said that in the United States, freshmen take maths courses on entry. "I am beginning to think that this country should move that way," he said.

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