A new ten-year plan
- Increase their provision of professional development for existing out-of-field school teachers of maths and recruit and retain more qualified teachers
- Fund a new national research centre in the mathematical sciences
- Make an intermediate maths subject a prerequisite for all bachelors’ programs in science, engineering and commerce.
It's not just students of STEM courses that are going to be impacted though, the recommendation to include commerce courses in the intermediary maths prerequisite is going to make plenty of waves. No everyone studying commerce wants to be a quant or a trader – so I can see a lot of the students majoring in the less mathematically inclined parts of commerce degree, or the common Commerce/Marketing and Commerce/Law degree combinations having to brush up on their maths a bit.
Alluring, but flawed
So why the need to enforce intermediate level maths? Well it’s because high school students are turning off it in droves.
So far, so obvious. But the proposed ten-year plan is solving the wrong problem. First of all, it’s written by the Academy of Science, and it reads like there’s a degree of professional capture going on here. While there’s some lip service paid to vocational training in the document, there’s an underlying assumption permeating the plan – that higher levels of STEM capability in the population is primarily driven by the linear process of studying STEM subjects at high school, getting a university STEM degree and then on to the workforce.
But more than half of people employed in STEM roles don’t have a university degree in a STEM subject. Most have diploma/associate degree or industry qualifications. And in those spaces, employers have been making it very clear that they’re struggling to find staff with the right skills (e.g. maths) to fill those roles.
First, to understand the unintended consequences from this recommendation, you need to understand a bit about how the university/vocational training entrance process works in Australia. Students are making what courses to take in their later years in high school based on three criteria:
- How much they enjoy a subject
- What prerequisites it meets for further study/training
- How highly they can score in particular subjects
If the requirement to make intermediate high school maths compulsory for STEM/commerce degrees means an influx of more able students into the subject, then students who aren’t confident about a strong score in intermediate maths will be looking elsewhere. This in turn means less students with intermediary maths skills in precisely the areas where we need them most – the non-degree STEM jobs where the majority of STEM workers are employed. In an advanced economy like Australia’s, these knowledge worker roles are critical and increasingly in demand.
So how do we arrest the slide in students taking intermediate maths?
Currently, high school subject choices are treated equally when calculating the university and/or vocational training ranking - no one course is more valued over another. But there is an adjustment for the ability of the group of students taking the course to allow for the comparison of scores across courses. If year 12 intermediate maths and ancient history courses are taken by groups of equally able students,then the same score in either course is equivalent for ranking purposes.
But with all due respect to the scholarship and contribution of the discipline of ancient history, our modern economy doesn’t rise and fall on the number of students with a working knowledge of the works of Cicero or the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire. If we’re serious about producing a body of students with the skills the economy needs, then the value we place on certain high school courses needs to change. If we want more students of all abilities to study intermediate maths, then we need an incentive that they will respond to. We need to increase the contribution that intermediate maths makes when ranking for access to university and/or vocational training:
- At a minimum, compensate less able intermediate maths students for the expected influx of more able students into intermediate maths due to the proposed changes
- Boost the relative ranking for students scoring in the low to middle bands in intermediate maths to make it a more attractive option over other subjects