## A new ten-year plan

The Australian Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham, is launching today a new ten-year plan for The mathematical sciences in Australia, which has been developed by the Australian Academy of Science. It contains three key recommendations:

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.

- 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

On the surface, making intermediate maths a prerequisite for science and engineering is an attractive idea – too few students are finishing high school with the necessary maths skills to take on STEM courses. They either end up at a serious disadvantage, and struggle during their courses (which is reflected in higher drop-out rates) or need to spend time taking remedial courses to get their skills up to the required level. Making the courses compulsory sends a clear signal to prospective students of what to expect in a university level course.

So why the need to enforce intermediate level maths? Well it’s because high school students are turning off it in droves.

So why the need to enforce intermediate level maths? Well it’s because high school students are turning off it in droves.

Part of the problem is how maths is taught. One of the key factors for student engagement is the quality of teaching – inspirational teachers make their subjects more enjoyable for students. Hence, key recommendation #1 – train out of field teachers better (more teachers confident in maths means less teaching to the textbook), and recruit and keep more qualified teachers.

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.

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.

## Perverse Disincentives

And this is where key recommendation #3 – making intermediate maths compulsory – breaks down. It only guides those students who were already planning on doing a STEM or commerce degree at university. For anyone else wanting to work in a STEM field, there’s actually a perverse disincentive to studying intermediate level maths.

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:

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.

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?

I said earlier that high school course choices are like a market. The thing that’s missing here are the things that markets respond to – incentives.

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:

D.

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

D.