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The crisis in maths in Australia

By J Hyam Rubinstein - posted Tuesday, 16 May 2006

The rapid economic reconstruction of Japan after the war was remarkable. A major feature was adoption of ideas of the great American statistician W. Edwards Deming on quality control and efficiency of production processes. In the United States Wal-mart, the retail giant, has a superb supply chain system, which is a key part of cost control. In Australia BHP Billiton has estimated that its group of mathematical scientists have saved the company several hundreds of millions of dollars in costs in a single year.

Around the world rail networks, ports and transport companies use ideas from Operations Research to streamline operations. The biological revolution, led by genomics, is analysing huge amounts of data to find underlying trends and patterns. This requires subtle ideas from mathematics and statistics, as do medical devices such as CAT scan machines. The finance industry, banking, insurance, investment and stock-brokers, are quantifying risk and analysing increasingly complex financial instruments such as derivatives, using mathematical sciences.

A paradox is that although there is no “mathematical industry” similar to the chemical industry or earth sciences in mining, it is also true that there is no non-mathematical industry. Every area requires or can benefit from mathematicians and statisticians to increase efficiency. Environmental issues such as conservation, from species to water, require building of mathematical models to predict how actions will affect outcomes. Codes and encryption require very sophisticated mathematical knowledge and are at the heart of electronic financial transactions, as well as playing a key role in national security.


Mathematics and statistics are crucial ingredients in ensuring the skills base for a robust economy that could withstand, for example, a downturn in commodity prices. These skills give us a seat at the international table in all the forums where mathematics is the language of development and innovation.

Most countries in the world, except for the poorest, give special attention and support to the mathematical sciences. For example, in the US, the National Science Foundation has instituted a number of programs to increase the supply of both mathematicians and statisticians. China and India stand out as emerging powerhouse of mathematical skills and the innovative technologies that will emerge from this investment.

Australia is an exception. We are in the midst of a national review of the mathematical sciences that will be completed in mid-2006. The international reviewers have been travelling across Australia. It is no exaggeration to say that the nation is facing a very serious situation.

Mathematical sciences are suffering a “triple whammy” - at school, undergraduate and university department levels. In schools, there is a shortage of suitably-trained mathematics teachers and the number of people entering the profession is far smaller than required to maintain even our current situation. In most states, there has been a flight of students away from high level mathematics subjects at senior levels of schools. The reasons for this include poor career advice, changes in university entry requirements and lack of qualified mathematics teachers.

At undergraduate level, the number of students majoring in mathematics and statistics has also been declining. This is a complex issue, intertwined with the degradation of university mathematics and statistics departments. Over the past ten years, the Australian Mathematical Society estimates there has been a 25 per cent reduction in teaching positions in mathematics and statistics around Australia. The review is indicating this may be an underestimate. Moreover, all but a handful of departments are currently in financial deficit and facing further cuts.

As part of the national review, we are hearing that employers want more mathematics and statistics graduates with better skills in communication, team and project work and numerical and computational methods. Finally, since we have almost no “young” academics (i.e under 45) in mathematics and statistics departments due to the continuing cut backs, morale is poor. A new phenomenon is that some young recruits from overseas have left within a year, since the conditions are so unsatisfactory.


However, all is not gloom and doom. Several years ago, with funding from the Victorian Government and support from Melbourne University, a consortium of mathematics and statistics departments from around the country established the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI). This has been very successful: advanced short courses have been run to fill gaps in opportunities for students at honours and postgraduate level. The Victorian funding has run out, but AMSI has been successful in winning a bid for an International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics and is now, for example, running innovative programs for in-service training of high school teachers and is producing new high quality mathematics texts for schools.

There is a strong will to succeed, but without a substantial improvement in the way that teaching of mathematics and statistics are funded at universities, the situation can only get worse. Incentives must be put in place to attract mathematical sciences students into teaching. Finally AMSI needs some long-term secure funding for its vital work.

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First published in Science Alert

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About the Author

J. Hyam Rubinstein is a professor in the Mathematics and Statistics Department, University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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