Two thirds of students lack the mathematical knowledge required for their university course

By Nuffield Foundation

Of the 330,000 students studying university courses that require mathematical knowledge beyond GCSE level, 210,000 of them (64%) do not have the required skills, causing problems for both students and universities.

These findings are published today by the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) in its report, Mathematical Needs. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Clothworkers’ Foundation, researchers analysed the mathematical content of a range of university courses and found there was a marked discrepancy between the number of courses requiring mathematical skills beyond GCSE and the number of people with these skills that the UK is producing. 

Chair of ACME Professor Dame Julia Higgins FREng FRS said: 

“Few students now study the requisite level of mathematics to prepare them properly for higher education and many universities have to downgrade the mathematical requirements for entry to their courses in order to fill places. In the last thirty years many university subjects have become more mathematical, but the number of students with the appropriate level of mathematical skills has not risen far enough to match this. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education concludes that all young people should study some form of mathematics to the age of eighteen in order to better prepare them for higher education and the world of employment.  In order to do this, additional courses need to be developed for study at the post-16 level.”

The report is the result of a two-year investigation, which also looked at the mathematical needs of employers and of the learners themselves. Some of the key findings included:

  • We need more young people to know more mathematics and to be confident, robust and fluent in their use of it. Not only are university courses increasingly quantitative in content, but there is also a steady shift in the employment market away from manual and low skill jobs and toward those requiring higher levels of management expertise and problem-solving skills, many of which are mathematical in nature.
  • There are concerns that the current high stakes assessment system in the form of ‘league tables’, creates a situation where institutions are more accountable for results than for the mathematical understanding of their pupils. This has a detrimental effect on the ability of young people to apply mathematics and creates long-term problems in both the workplace and higher education. 
  • Good mathematics learning needs knowledgeable teachers, who can draw on students’ understanding, involve them in discussion, and engage all students in a variety of complex tasks in which mathematics is presented as a subject with many aspects.  All teachers should be entitled to subject specific continuing professional development (CPD). 
  • Changes in commonplace technology also affect the kinds of mathematical questions that can be asked and answered, and the way that mathematics is used in the workplace. Learners need to understand ideas and problems that could not even be asked by earlier generations, and to become adept at answering them by using, and developing, 21st century tools. 
  • Employers highlighted that to use mathematics confidently at one level, experience of it at a higher level is required. However, a common concern is that the demands of ‘performance tables’ may be forcing schools to take low risk options and discourage students from taking higher levels of mathematics – either at GCSE or at A-level.
Mathematics underpins a wide variety of subjects and disciplines, as well as existing as a subject in its own right. Our investigations into the needs of the learners, and of Higher Education and employers, found that students are leaving school without the mathematical skills required for the next stages of their lives, whether that is the workplace or further study.  This is a fundamental failing that must be addressed if we are to have mathematically-literate future generations capable of rising to the challenges of a new, more technologically-dependent and competitive world.” Professor Dame Julia Higgins FREng FRS, Chair of ACME

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