Unbalanced equation

February 11, 2005

Failure to act on course cuts will open up subject 'wastelands' across the UK

Fears for the future of mathematics courses grew this week as Hull University confirmed the closure of its maths department and Nottingham Trent University announced a review of its provision.

The London Mathematical Society, which will next month give evidence to a Commons committee looking at subjects in crisis, warned that parts of Britain could become mathematical "wastelands".

The society, which is in touch with academics in maths departments across the country who are worried about future provision, is calling for government intervention to support the subject, including bursaries to encourage more young people to study maths.

Hull's decision to axe its maths department was approved this week by the university senate and council. There will be no new student intakes to BSc programmes. A number of staff will relocate to support research and teaching of maths at York University.

Problems with undergraduate recruitment, a correspondingly high dependence on income from international students and an expensive research commitment have meant that Hull's maths department is no longer viable in its current form.

David Drewry, Hull's vice-chancellor, said: "It is regrettable that we have to consider withdrawing academic provision.

"However, we have a responsibility to ensure that the university operates on sound financial and business planning principles, so it is vital we do not shy away from making difficult decisions."

Nottingham Trent confirmed that it was reviewing its maths provision but refused to elaborate.

"The university has a range of maths provision across several areas of the university. It is currently reviewing how best to provide an appropriate level of maths support for its academic programmes," a spokesperson said.

The LMS has been contacted by academics in a number of university maths departments across the country and has been in touch with Birmingham, Salford and Essex universities, as well as the University of Wales, Bangor.

Birmingham University this week confirmed that home and European Union student numbers were up by 20 per cent.

Essex, which relaunched its department as the department of mathematical sciences two years ago, has seen a rise in applications - home and EU students are up 21 per cent and overseas students are up 10 per cent.

Salford offers courses with maths content only in the School of Accounting, rather than straight maths, but these are popular.

Alan Shore, head of the School of Informatics at Bangor, denied its maths department was under threat. He said: "There are challenges with recruitment. That's why the department was brought into the informatics school four years ago."

Amanda Chetwynd, vice-president of the LMS, blamed higher education funding policy for making some maths departments economically unviable.

She said: "The effect is creating mathematical wastelands in parts of the country at a time when the Government is saying we need more students to study maths and that we need to encourage people into maths teaching.

"We are very concerned because various departments write to us and some are closing and some are worried about whether they are viable. Maths is a subject that underpins so many other subjects. You have to have it all over the country.

"If you close departments, it will disproportionately affect poorer children. You need a spread of maths departments across the country for widening participation."

Professor Chetwynd is to give evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry on subjects in crisis next month.

While the latest data the LMS has from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that the overall pool of students doing maths is slightly increasing, there are not enough students to spread around.

The society wants to see the Government help. "We are trying to encourage more students to come through but we need the Government to give them an extra boost, such as bursaries," Professor Chetwynd said.

Peter Cooper, LMS executive secretary, said: "Maths can be taught and researched at a small level.

"You can deliver the Government's demands on access much more easily in maths if only the departments were allowed to survive."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

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