Students struggling with maths nationally


A recent report has brought to light that several Universities are dropping maths from degree courses because students cannot cope with it. Universities are being forced to cut back on the level of maths in courses, including psychology, economics and sciences, because students are unable to tackle complex mathematical problems.

Elspeth Garman, Professor of Biochemistry at Oxford University, told Cherwell that she is very aware of these problems, commenting, ‘Although we have not compromised on the level of Mathematics we deliver in our Biochemistry Course, I know that many other Universities have.’ She considers mathematical competence vital if students are going to be able to do quantitative science at a higher level.

Vicky To, a first year chemist agreed, ‘Although it might seem strange at first that a scientist would have to do what is essentially degree-level maths at points, I would find it more disturbing to encounter a practising chemist who had no understanding of maths beyond A level. For a grasp of many of the aspects of a science subject you have to be mathematically competent.’

Branwen Brockley, a biochemist from St Anne’s, shares this opinion, ‘Maths is so important in science, for proving theories and getting data.’ 

Brockley struggled with maths at the start of her course, stating, ‘I was quite shocked when I first arrived as I had not expected the course to be so maths based. I had only done maths to GCSE, meaning that  there was a massive gap between what I had learned at school at what I was taught during my lectures. They go through it so quickly, what we covered in one of our lectures my friend had spent a term doing at A level. In my maths lectures they tend to only recap the information, rather than actually teaching it. For Biochemistry they said it would be useful to have A level maths, I would say it is essential.’

Caspar Eliot, a second year mathematician at New College, commented that students who do not have A level maths can struggle, ‘Before an A level in maths became a prerequisite for PPE, some of the students would have real difficulty with economics because they just did not understand the maths involved.’

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Valentin Sulzer,  a first year mathematician, noted that there is a lot of support available to students, ‘A maths or science course taught at Oxford is a lot more accompanied than at other universities. We don’t just have lectures, but attend tutes where we can ask all our questions.’ Branwen too is pleased with the help which is offered. She now receives extra tutoring for maths which is helping.

Professor Garman stated that the maths on the biochemistry course is considered particularly ‘hard-core,’ however she is convinced that any student who has been accepted on the course is up to the challenge of covering over half of A2 maths in 8 weeks. She commented, ‘Our course is harder work than most students expect, however it is often simply the case of building confidence in the student and helping them to believe that they can manage it.’

According to the report, which is entitled ‘Solving the maths problem’, the reputation of the country’s universities and graduates is now under threat. It states, ‘English universities are not keeping pace with international standards. Mathematics knowledge and qualifications are increasingly important gateways to further and higher education, for crucial life-skills and in order to respond to economic change. But the way it is taught and assessed in England has not always kept pace with these changes or with the needs of learners and has left one in four adults functionally innumerate.’

Xin Fan, a first year economist, responded to this, “This is a step in the wrong direction for Britain. We need to be moulding numerically sharp graduates to compete with the cohorts of proficient mathematicians and scientists coming out of the emerging Asian economies.’