Christian Wakeford: The number of pupils doing A-Level maths is fantastic – but higher education is not doing enough to support them

9 Aug

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South

All students receiving their A-Level results tomorrow deserve huge credit. It’s been another disrupted and difficult year for pupils.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that maths is set to be the most popular subject choice, just as it has been for the last few years. According to the interim figures from Ofqual, over 90,000 pupils will receive A-Level results in maths this week. (It’s a long way back to second place in the list of subjects – 68,000 sat psychology while biology takes bronze with 63,000 candidates).

This is good news for maths. But it brings with it certain issues. With so many school pupils sitting maths we must ensure that the pipeline in further and higher education is big enough to accommodate them. There are worrying signs of kinks in that pipeline.

Earlier this year Leicester University took the decision to close the pure maths group in its mathematics department. That prompted the founding, by the London Mathematical Society and others, of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Its dual aims are to promote maths in general and to protect pure maths in particular, because that area of the subject seems most under threat at the moment.

Dr Nira Chamberlain, president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), is a vocal supporter of the campaign. He recently said, “To those who think we can have a better society by reducing pure mathematical activity, I say this: ‘All of mathematics is important, you cannot target one without hurting the other!’ When mathematics is strong the UK economy becomes stronger.”

That goes to the nub of the issue. The mathematical sciences contribute over £200 billion to the UK economy, that’s around 10 per cent of GDP. We need maths and mathematicians as we rebuild the economy.

But sometimes it can be tricky to see what pure maths in particular contributes. By its very nature pure maths is concerned with pursuing mathematical ideas for their own sake.

And yet without it our lives today would be very different. For example, the encryption that secures the contents of your mobile phone and which facilitated all those contactless transactions during the pandemic relies on principles from pure maths.

We don’t just carry pure maths in our pockets. It’s pure maths that underpins the safe and successful functioning of GPS satellites in space mapping the globe. Pure maths keeps us safe.

Alan Turing was studying a knotty problem in mathematical logic back in the 1930s. It appeared to have limited real world application. Yet when it came to cracking the Enigma code that pure maths work proved vital. And of course Turing’s work would ultimately hatch modern computers.

Today, government security and surveillance hub GCHQ is one of the nation’s largest employers of pure mathematicians. The Heilbronn Institute – a partnership between GCHQ and universities put out a statement on ‘the value of pure mathematics in security’ which boiled down to this line: “Pure mathematics is crucial in designing and analysing modern security protocols.”

Pure maths helps keep us well. For example, by making MRI scanners more efficient it has surely saved the lives of many patients. Maths in all its forms has been crucial to our response to Covid-19. From the graphs that we became accustomed to seeing at Downing Street briefings to modelling the spread of the disease, and more happily, the development and rollout of vaccines – a process in which this country and this government has led the world.

We can lead the world in maths too if we recognise the value of maths in all its forms and ensure maths departments remain not just viable but healthy.

Students acing A-Level maths today shouldn’t have to travel far from home if they don’t want to. There’s a danger that if some institutions make injudicious cuts then pure maths will become the preserve of certain universities while others will specialise in applied mathematics. Better to have maths departments where all strands of the subject can interact, infuse and enthuse each other spread throughout the country.

This government knows the value of maths. We’ve announced £300 million in additional funding for the subject. The details around that commitment should be forthcoming in the autumn. I hope it will be used to fund all branches of mathematics and that it will be provided in a sustainable way, to pay for students to complete courses over a number of years. That is the way to maintain our mathematical pipeline of excellence.

By doing so we give today’s pupils celebrating their success at maths A-Level the best opportunity to develop their knowledge and love of the subject. And we give the nation the best chance of reaping the rewards of that excellence in terms of the economy, opportunity and in finding the answers to questions we have even thought to ask yet and in being ready to face challenges currently unknown.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Cummings explains why it is safer to be a gambler than a bureaucrat

17 Mar

Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.

Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.

If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.

Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.

About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.

Cummings instead remarked:

“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.

“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.

It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.

A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”

Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.

Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.

In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.

Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”

Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.

Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”

He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.

“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”

The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.

Michelle Donelan: The Government’s new Turing scheme will open up the world to British students

28 Dec

Michelle Donelan is Minister of State for Universities.

When things become too familiar, it can be comfortable to sit back and enjoy their benefits, never stopping to consider whether the old, established parameters still meet the needs of the present day. The thought of losing it becomes a wrench. Even if what is being offered in exchange is clearly better, the original has acquired a totemic nature that goes far beyond its present value.

Such can be the only explanation for the cries of dismay from some quarters that greeted the news last week that the UK government would be establishing a new global Turing scheme for students, following our decision not to continue participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme.

I can understand why some people feel this way. Many prominent commentators, newsreaders or academics may have used Erasmus, or perhaps their children or friends did. It is easier to imagine what you know, than to visualise the benefits of what is being brought in. However, the simple reality is this: if anyone was creating a student exchange scheme for Britain today, would they really settle for Erasmus+?

Why would we wish to limit an exchange programme to the EU, when the fastest growing, most vibrant and dynamic countries are increasingly found in Asia and Africa – not to mention our old allies in North America, Australia and New Zealand? Some forward-thinking universities have already established exchange programmes, and even campuses, outside of Europe, and I commend them for that, but they deserve our full and whole-hearted support, not exclusion from the Government’s principal funded scheme.

It is also the case, unfortunately, that Erasmus’s benefits went overwhelmingly to students who were already advantaged. The language barrier meant that it was very hard for students not already studying a modern foreign language to take part, to flourish at their chosen university and get the most out of the academic experience. A 2006 study found that of those taking part in Erasmus from the UK, 51 per cent were from families with a high or very high income.

In 2014-15, those with parents in managerial or professional occupations from the UK were taking part in Erasmus at a rate 50 per cent higher than those whose parents had working class jobs – and the gap was widening. Of course, no-one would wish to prevent such students from studying abroad; but where Government support is concerned, surely it should be about ensuring all students have a fair and equal shot at studying abroad or going on an exchange.

That’s why the Government’s new Turing scheme will explicitly target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas which did not previously have many students benefiting from Erasmus+, making life-changing opportunities accessible to everyone across the country. It will be backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges, on apprenticeships, and in schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.

The programme will provide similar opportunities for students to study and work abroad as the Erasmus+ programme but it will include countries across the world and will deliver greater value for money to taxpayers. And it will be named after one of our greatest British scientists: Alan Turing, a pioneer of computing and cryptography, a hero of the Second World War and who himself studied abroad as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton.

Of course, none of this is to decry Erasmus+: undoubtedly, those who took part in the scheme benefited from it. However, the fact is that it is simply too limiting for the global Britain that we aspire to. Of the hundred best universities in the world in the QS World Rankings, only twelve are in the EU. If we have stayed with Erasmus+ it would have cost several hundreds of millions of pounds to fund a similar number of exchanges, not have been global in nature and continued to deliver poor participation rates for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In the future, we will see young people from Bolsover and Bishop Auckland studying in the Ivy League; entrepreneurs from Dudley and Derbyshire learning from the dynamic economies of Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and our best budding engineers from Hastings and Hartlepool inspired by world-leaders at MIT or the Indian Institute of Technology. The Turing scheme exemplifies the spirit of Brexit, opening up our opportunities, our hearts and our horizons to the whole world.