Finkel demands unis “step up to the plate” on maths-based course

The Chief Scientist calls on universities to name the degrees that need, really need maths. And he has way to do it

Dr Finkel made his case to the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers conference, yesterday.

The text of his speech is Finkel in-form, amusing, erudite, expansive – quoting Plato and Dr Seuss, rhetorically roaming across the ages to make the case for studying maths. So enthusiastic and engaging that it is easy to underestimate how irritated he is with universities.

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“In the absence of prerequisites and clear signals of what is required to succeed in a course, the ATAR has been given more prominence than was intended. It is now used as a catch-all representation of student achievement, which it was never meant to be.”

This includes the belief that there are easier ways than hard maths to score a high ATAR.

This is not good enough: “The ATAR was originally intended to coexist alongside clear expectations and signals from universities about subject choice. Without these signals, the pressure to study subjects that are seen to maximise your ATAR score has increased. So, while an ATAR score may allow students entry to a course, without a sound understanding of core content, students scrape through or fail or drop out. With all the consequences.”

It’s up to universities to fix this: “Our universities need to indicate clearly to students what subjects are required to do well in a given course and reinstate the expectation of study at intermediate or advanced levels, particularly for entry into mathematics-based courses such as physics, engineering and all of the general-science courses, as well as other disciplines that depend on mathematics … “

And Finkel has a way to do it: He proposes universities combine to create an equivalent of the UK Russell Group’s on-line “Informed Choices” for university applicants, which sets out school subjects recommended for specific university courses. “It is my hope that a modest number of thought-leading universities will agree to develop an Australian (version),” he says.

And he adds universities need to set prerequisites that make clear to school students that math based degrees need maths.

“Until universities step up to the plate and send a clear message to students that if they want to keep their options open they should study advanced or intermediate maths in school it is left to principals and teachers,” he says.


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