In Focus: The state of Education in Mathematics

Maths in Schools

Worrying trends in the study of mathematics by Australia’s high school students indicate the need for closer consideration of HSC subject choices. Jenny Henderson, Pro Dean of the Faculty of Science, talks about the findings and what we must do to help our students succeed.

"The Go8 universities have released a report on the state of education in the mathematical sciences in Australia. The report confirms the conclusions of earlier reviews that point to a decline in the number of students selecting the high school mathematics courses needed for careers in the quantitative disciplines.

A decision taken in Year 10 to drop mathematics entirely or to take General Mathematics for the Higher School Certificate can have far-reaching consequences for students interested in a career in any of the quantitative disciplines. These cover a broad spectrum including economics, commerce, engineering, computer science and information technologies, psychology, all areas of science and medical science, and of course mathematics itself.

Careers in agriculture, horticultural science, land and water management, architecture, design computing, pharmacy and veterinary science also require a solid mathematics background. Students who do not study the appropriate level of mathematics will find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of ability to thrive in their chosen university degree and in their future career advancement.

The report reveals that the number of Australian students taking advanced mathematics at high school dropped by 27% between 1995 and 2007. This causes problems for employers who are seeking graduates in quantitative areas, particularly applied mathematics and statistics.

It also highlights worrying trends in Australia’s scores in international benchmarking tests such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and the diminishing mathematical capability of students in quantitative disciplines.

A quick glance at the UAC Guide reveals how important a proper mathematical foundation is to a large number of degrees. When Assumed Knowledge (whether mathematics or chemistry or a particular level of English) is listed, it should be recognised that students entering that degree without this knowledge will be at a disadvantage relative to their better-prepared classmates and will find their study more difficult and less rewarding.

When the Assumed Knowledge specifies “Mathematics” it means the 2 unit HSC course of that name, not General Mathematics. While many universities have introduced bridging courses and remedial mathematics subjects to help under-prepared students, the hard fact is that these are no substitute for two years of study in high school, where the concepts can be introduced more slowly and students have time to absorb the big ideas.

The review makes six recommendations, which have been supported by the Go8 universities. Some of these relate to improved teacher training for both primary and secondary teachers in mathematics, as well as raising mathematics and science awareness in the general community. It essential for careers advisers, teachers, students and parents to be aware of how many disciplines require quantitative skills before crucial decisions are taken on a choice of HSC subjects."

The Review of Education in Mathematics, Data Science and Quantitative Disciplines was undertaken for the Go8 in 2009 by Professor Gavin Brown, a distinguished mathematician and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. It is available on-line at