Maths days are not numbered

January 13, 1995

The news about dropping mathematics degrees at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education should not pass without comment (THES, December 23). Under-recruitment to courses in which mathematics is studied as a major or minor component has led to staff cuts. The remaining lecturers deal with whatever service-mathematics is required in other degree programmes.

As a mathematics lecturer I must declare an interest. The Cheltenham assistant director seems to have chosen the easy way out (as he sees it) by slimming down the mathematics department to a small minority group too small to operate as a mathematics department. This decision is not only sad -- there are some important national issues and trends behind the scene here that have helped to provoke the local decision.

The assistant director's quote "the assumption that all universities contain a mathematics department and mathematics degrees does not bear scrutiny" should alert the mathematics community at large to stand up and fight for its subject. Crisis! what crisis?

Some recent issues can be given: figures for the number of students taking A-level mathematics in England have shown a marked decline; engineering professionals have come out with strong negative statements about the mathematical abilities of their undergraduates; ask school-leavers what use mathematics is for a career and nobody tells them; argument reigns still about the role of calculating devices and computers in mathematics teaching; others do not welcome the "investigative nature" of some parts of the mathematics GCSE curriculum (let's get back to basics). All is apparently not well so what can be done?

For such a central activity as mathematics to be constantly under discussion regarding its teaching and subsequent uses to the community is no surprise. Nevertheless, there are serious grounds for concern. One thing the university sector must address is the use of mathematics as and within a career. We must do more than publish the odd book. We have to sell the subject for its uses (and beauty) and also create attractive degree programmes in mathematics that are seen as vital for the 21st century workforce.

Mike Hamson Preston Field Milngavie, Glasgow

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