AMSI to the Rescue

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has just released its Report on Australian Year 12 students’ participation in mathematics from 2008 to 2017. The Report indicates, of course, that the percentage of girls doing a “higher level” maths subject is lower than the percentage of boys. (One headline trumpets that “Less girls are studying maths than boys”, proving only that fewer journalists are studying grammar.) More generally, the overall participation in higher level maths is reportedly the lowest for 20 years.


Who would have thought that a boring and aimless curriculum, and lousy texts, and the crappy training of teachers by clowns who have in turn had crappy training, and the belittling of Mathematics by the S and the T and the E of STEM, and the faddish genuflection to technical gods, and decades of just plain dumbing down would have pissed off so many students?

AMSI’s Report of the bleeding obvious doesn’t consider the causes of the decline in participation. Fair enough. The Report is seriously flawed, however, in failing to note that the meaning of “higher level mathematics” is not a constant. The “higher level mathematics” of 2017 is significantly lower than that of 1997, which is lower again than that of 1977. The problem is much, much worse than AMSI’s Report suggests.

AMSI is not just reporting on the decline in participation, they are supposedly working to fix it. AMSI’s new director, Tim Brown, has been out and about, discussing the Report. Professor Brown is reported as saying that the reasons for the decline are “varied”, but of these varied reasons, he appears to have indicated just two to the media; first, “a shortage in qualified maths teachers”; second, “teaching from the textbook” rather than “active learning”.

Really? With all those plump targets, AMSI chooses these two? Yes, the lack of qualified teachers is a problem, and a problem AMSI apparently enjoys talking about. And yes, the current textbooks are appalling. But such low-fruit targets are not the substantive problem, and false fixes of second order issues will do little or nothing to improve matters. The real issue is one of systemic cultural decline.

We believe Professor Brown knows this. The question is, will Professor Brown drag AMSI, finally, into waging the genuine, important fights that need to be fought?

The Oxford is Slow

Last year, Oxford University extended the length its mathematics exams from 90 to 105 minutes. Why? So that female students would perform better, relative to male students. According to the University, the problem with shorter exams is that “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure”.


There’s good reason to be unhappy with the low percentage of female mathematics students, particularly at advanced levels. So, Oxford’s decision is in response to a genuine issue and is undoubtedly well-intentioned. Their decision, however also appears to be dumb, and it smells of dishonesty.

There are many suggestions as to why women are underrepresented in mathematics, and there’s plenty of room for thoughtful disagreement. (Of course there is also no shortage of pseudoscientific clowns and feminist nitwits.) Unfortunately, Oxford’s decision appears to be more in the nature of statistical manipulation than meaningful change.

Without more information, and the University has not been particularly forthcoming, it is difficult to know the effects of this decision. Reportedly, the percentage of female first class mathematics degrees awarded by Oxford increased from 21% in 2016 to 39% last year, while male firsts increased marginally to 47%. Oxford is presumably pleased, but without detailed information about score distributions and grade cut-offs it is impossible to understand what is underlying those percentages. Even if otherwise justified, however, Oxford’s decision constitutes deliberate grade inflation, and correspondingly its first class degree has been devalued.

The reported defences of Oxford’s decision tend only to undermine the decision. It seems that when the change was instituted last (Northern) summer, Oxford provided no rationale to the public. It was only last month, after The Times gained access to University documents under FOI, that the true reasons became known publicly. It’s a great way to sell a policy, of course, to be legally hounded into exposing your reasons.

Sarah Hart, a mathematician at the University of London, is quoted by The Times in support of longer exams: “Male students were quicker to answer questions, she said, but were more likely to get the answer wrong”. And, um, so we conclude what, exactly?

John Banzhaf, a prominent public interest lawyer, is reported as doubting Oxford’s decision could be regarded as “sexist”, since the extension of time was identical for male and female candidates. This is hilariously legalistic from such a politically wise fellow (who has some genuine mathematical nous).

The world is full of policies consciously designed to hurt one group or help another, and many of these policies are poorly camouflaged by fatuous “treating all people equally” nonsense. Any such policy can be good or bad, and well-intentioned or otherwise, but such crude attempts at camouflage are never honest or smart. The stated purpose of Oxford’s policy is to disproportionally assist female candidates; there are arguments for Oxford’s decision and one need not agree with the pejorative connotations of the word, but the policy is blatantly sexist.

Finally, there is the fundamental question of whether extending the exams makes them better exams. There is no way that someone unfamiliar with the exams and the students can know for sure, but there’s reasons to be sceptical. It is in the nature of most exams that there is time pressure. That’s not perfect, and there are very good arguments for other forms of assessment in mathematics. But all assessment forms are artificial and/or problematic in some significant way. And an exam is an exam. Presumably the maths exams were previously 90 minutes for some reason, and in the public debate no one has provided any proper consideration or critique of any such reasons.

The Times quotes Oxford’s internal document in support of the policy: “It is thought that this [change in exam length] might mitigate the . . . gender gap that has arisen in recent years, and in any case the exam should be a demonstration of mathematical understanding and not a time trial.” 

This quote pretty much settles the question. No one has ever followed “and in any case” with a sincere argument.