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.

Hugo de Burgh: We owe it to future generations of Brits to work with China

6 Jul

Professor Hugo de Burgh is Director of the China Media Centre. He is the author of China’s Media in the Emerging World Order, has held office in three Conservative associations, and stood in unwinnable seats several times.

China is our third largest market and the one with the greatest potential. China is the country with which we must work if we are to have any impact on the resolution of global problems from environment to nuclear proliferation. China can accelerate the development of African and Central Asian economies, mitigating the risks to Europe that come from population explosion there without adequate economic growth. China is the largest economy in the world and already influential in a majority of countries.

For all these reasons, it is patriotic and reasonable for British leaders to find a way to work with China, which they will only do if they understand China as it is. Among other eminent Brits who started with a morbid suspicion of China, I have accompanied Boris Johnson and Jeremy Paxman on extended visits, and watched the scales fall from their eyes as they understood the enormity of the challenges facing Chinese government and the absurdity of imagining that its leaders wasted a moment thinking about conquering the world.

The reverse is the case. They are determined not to be conquered by the world. In the past, China built a Great Wall to keep out foreigners; today China is initiating the Belt and Road initiative to secure their back as they restore their civilisation, threatened from the east.

Fantasising about regime change in China, some US politicians make outlandish accusations. Had they talked to a few Chinese punters, followed social media or watched chat shows on TV, they could not possibly claim that China is a totalitarian country. Had they read Pew’s surveys of public opinion they would realise that the Chinese are, overall, more satisfied with their governance than European citizens, to say nothing of the USA. And are you surprised? While Europe and the USA are beset by economic and political troubles, Chinese people see ahead of them only more wealth, health and social mobility.

We need to recognise that demonisation of China is a weapon with which some US politicians deflect attention from their own failings and reflect their commercial jealousy. Both our National Cyber Security Centre and GCHQ have maintained until now that Huawei’s involvement in the UK poses no security risk that cannot be managed. Otherwise why would the US trade Department last week reauthorize US companies to work with Huawei, even as Donald Trump bullies other countries not to?

Robert Zoellick, a US former Deputy Secretary of State, is among the calmer heads to remind us just how positive a collaborator China is: that it recognises climate change issues, is in the forefront of environment innovation and has worked hard on endangered species; cooperates with the IMF over stimulation; provides more UN peacekeepers than the other members of the Security Council combined.

He points out that between 2000 and 2018 China supported 182 of the 190 Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on nations which violated international rules or norms; China collaborated on the Iran and North Korea proliferation treaties.

Zoellick is not given to dire warnings about how dysfunctional it will be if the West really manages to ‘cut China off’, but they are implied in his general remarks about China, restated at a recent Henry Jackson webinar. China, he reminds us, is the biggest contributor to global growth; the fastest growing market for United States products; no longer manipulates the exchange rate; and, in response to our pleas, has improved its legal system. All in all, Zoellick tells us that cooperation with China “does produce results” but we should not take China’s cooperation for granted, “it could be very different”.

At home in Blighty, those calling for “a reckoning with China”, demanding a COBRA-like committee to mull over retaliation, wanting to “hold China to account” should ask themselves whether our businesses, for many of whom China is their most important market, want matters to become “very different”.

As to Hong Kong, the whole world must be astounded at the descendants of nineteenth century imperialists sending out paper gunboats commanding that China order its affairs according to our desires. A long time ago as a student, I demonstrated against colonial rule and police corruption in Hong Kong, and can still feel the truncheon on my back. In the face of much more vicious violence than anything we democracy activists attempted, Beijing has been restrained. In Northern Ireland, when security deteriorated, the UK imposed direct rule and fiercely rejected US interference on the IRA side. Over Hong Kong, we should try to see how interfering former imperialists look to most Asians, let alone to Chinese.

There are aspects of Chinese policies that we do not like, just as there are aspects of US policies that we abhor. The China Research Group is right to be concerned about cyber security and human rights. The way forward is to deal with China as a partner in the solution of common issues, such as terrorism in Xinjiang and Afghanistan. We have always worked with regimes with different standards when it suits our national interest. And respecting and being respected by China is in our national interest.

In the words of Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister: Over 30 years China has pulled off the ‘the English industrial revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years but 30’. There is a lot to learn and if we are to develop and prosper in the world ahead, we must be part of this. We should also celebrate that China’s rise is bringing better nourishment, greater life expectancy, education and security to hundreds of millions around the world.

Fulminating at China’s internal affairs and rejecting Chinese investment in order to please its commercial rivals will have no effect beyond signalling our impotence and arrogance; they are of no benefit to Britain and have no place in a long-term plan for Britain to prosper in the Asian century. Our government must develop a strategic approach to China. We owe it to future generations of Brits to work with China.