This is a selection of comments on our online petition from the Australian and international mathematical community, including the heads of several mathematics departments. For comments from leaders in computer science, statistics, engineering and industry, as well as the USQ community, please see this page.

[Note – for reasons of both space and time, this list is far from comprehensive. The remainder of the signatories, including many notable leaders in their field, can be found at the online petition web page. – Ed.]

— Leaders in the Australian and expatriate mathematical community —

The problems at USQ bring to a head the difficulties facing mathematical sciences departments right around Australia. For example, the suggestion that the teaching of mathematics and statistics can be safely limited to service courses is being raised in a number universities, and flies in the face of rapidly increasing demand for properly trained professionals in these areas.

To illustrate the issues involved, let me mention that in a submission to the 2006 review of mathematical sciences a major employer of mathematical scientists addressed the issue of training professional statisticians using service courses, which provide primarily problem-solving skills:

“We have noted a disturbing trend where some universities are placing too much emphasis on the practical application of statistical techniques…and leaving the student without a proper understanding of the underlying statistical principles. This leads to graduates who lack sufficient theory to understand the assumptions and limitations of the various techniques and hence are unable to extend the theory or apply it in new situations as required.”

These comments sum up well the problems caused by training professional mathematicians and statisticians by giving them only minimal problem-solving skills.

Finally, Terry, a word of thanks from all of us in Australia for your help in bringing the problems here to a wider audience. Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

Professor Peter Gavin Hall, Federation Fellow,
University of Melbourne.

[See also Hall’s editorial in the Australian – Ed.]

As an Australian expatriate mathematician, I agree with Terry’s sentiments, both in general and specific terms. I also endorse this petition.

Danny Calegari
Richard Merkin Distinguished Professor of Mathematics
California Institute of Technology

[See also Calegari’s letter to the USQ vice chancellor – Ed.]

Unfortunately this is only the latest example in a saga of cuts in mathematical sciences staffing, primarily at regional universities, but also at some of the larger, more established universities, my own included. To some extent this is an inevitable result of the market forces driven educational industry that is slowly replacing what was once a world class tertiary educational system. It is to be hoped that the new Federal government will move quickly to reverse this trend, and that universities will once again revert to their priority of hiring high quality academics, so that there will once agin be time and opportunity to offer top quality teaching, as well as conducting research and engaging with end-users, rather than adding to the already overblown administrative ranks.

Tony Guttman,
Professor, University of Melbourne

I was the Executive Director of the National Strategic Review of Mathematical Sciences Research in Australia, which reported in December 2006. That review documented clearly the sustained neglect and chronic underfunding of the mathematical sciences by governments, and the lack of support for these disciplines within universities in the internal competition for resources. It was starkly demonstrated that unless the situation is rapidly turned around, a severe and perhaps permanent destruction of the nation’s mathematics and statistics infrastructure looms. Despite some modest but very welcome additional federal government money received since the review, the profession continues to decline as the full value of the additional federal support fails to be passed on to the relevant departments, and the higher level administrators at a number of universities continue to pursue policies that do not support the profession. The recent developments at the University of Southern Queensland, in particular, deserve the strongest condemnation and should be vigorously opposed.

Barry Hughes,
Professor, University of Melbourne

The decline in mathematics and statistics is alarming and needs urgent action, with universities accepting responsibility. To arrest the decline, we need to get well-trained mathematical scientists into teaching in schools and if regional universities abandon their programs, this will not happen. USQ has a fine department, which is earning its keep by service teaching, as is the model throughout the world. To be penalised in this way is unreasonable and unfair. Australia has a large and growing shortage of engineers and without strong mathematical sciences, this will only get worse. I support this petition very strongly.

Hyam Rubinstein,
Chair, National Committee for the Mathematical Sciences in Australia.
Professor, University of Melbourne

I strongly support this petition.

At a time when even the Australian government has recognised the acute shortage of well-trained mathematical scientists in the country, it is very sad, and short-sighted that USQ moves to decimate its mathematics training capability.

Cheryl E Praeger
Federation Fellow, University of Western Australia

As a recently expatriated Australian mathematician, I too support this petition. I am afraid that university administrators in Australia are only interested in the short term financial implications of what they do, and are not aware or interested in the long term health of academe.

Michael Cowling
Mason Professor of Pure Mathematics
University of Birmingham

I strongly support this petition and hope a reasonable solution will be found.

Igor Shparlinski
Australian Professorial Fellow, FFA
Macquarie University

I wonder if the administration of the University of Southern Queensland is committed to providing a proper education to their students. If they are, this is perhaps the worst sort of step they could take; even if it is an act of desperation born of difficult circumstances. The importance of a sound mathematical and scientific education is becoming ever more evident. It is also quite clear that such an education cannot be provided, in any meaningful way, by a purely `service’ department which is of necessity rigid. I believe USQ started as an Institute of Technology; it appears to be following the opposite trajectory to MIT.

I support this petition and hope that these very unwise steps will not be taken.

Richard Melrose
Simons Professor of Mathematics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The importance of strong education in mathematics and statistics has never been greater. In that light the proposed move by USQ is a large move in the wrong direction. I strongly support the petition. Thanks Terrry for organising it.

Ian Sloan
Professor
University of New South Wales

Like other expatriates, I benefited enormously from the mentoring and individual attention I received from strong Mathematicians in Australia. It is disturbing to hear of the proposed budget cuts at USQ. The Australian academic community is small enough such that these drastic cuts will inevitably spread. With even the so called “prestige” departments forced into budget cuts, the best and brightest will inevitably look (often reluctantly) to positions overseas.

What appalls me most, however, is that it is generally accepted that developing a new generation of scientifically literate Australians, and in particular scientifically literate high school teachers (of which there is a current shortage) is essential to Australia’s future economy. I understand that USQ had plans for a novel training scheme for young teachers that is now slated to be scrapped.

I am very pleased that Australian governments have recently come to realize that Science (and Mathematics in particular) will play an essential role in Australia’s future success. I hope that university administrators will take note and reverse these short sighted budget cuts, for the sake not only of USQ but also for Australian higher education in general.

Frank Calegari
Assistant Professor
Department of Mathematics
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL, USA

Where do I start? Those of you who know me, know that I have been battling in many ways for the mathematical sciences in Australia for a long time. So let me put USQ in context and stress how really important this issue is.

Back in the mid 80s I was happily working with teachers on issues related to language and mathematics. Then in the late 80s bureaucrats decided that a particularly nasty version of a national mathematics curriculum meant that the various education departments didn’t need specialist like me helping schools because this document solved all. About this time I got involved at the national level with the politics of mathematical sciences in Australia. After all, it’s no good writing about inequity in mathematics education for students from indigenous or other backgrounds who are being failed by the system if there are fundamental problems with teacher supply, university offerings and a host of other things. So here I am, 20 years on and should be retired, still fighting a battle for what should be the right of every young Australian, a first-rate mathematics education.

The battle to save mathematics and statistics at USQ is much bigger than a single university but winning it is fundamental to winning equity, access, social justice and social inclusion for many young Australians. If we don’t fix the problem in the universities, we don’t have teachers and the teachers we do have go to the schools of the privileged.

There is only one mathematician left at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory which is home to many of our indigenous people. It is hard enough for young people from any remote community to relocate for their education but harder still for those tied closely to their families and land.

I keep doing what I can. I’ve been helped by many wonderful mathematical scientist over the years who don’t seem to mind that I’m not actually a mathematician. I’m technically an organic chemist according to a rather dated piece of paper. I also have some good genes for this – my father was a politician.

Garth Gaudry was a mathematical mentor to Terry. I particularly want to acknowledge the wonderful support and help Garth has given me since we first met in the late 80s. There are others too numerous to mention but Garth was the first to assist me into the politics of all this. So I do now have some pretty good political connections and some good media people to call on.

The formation of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) has given me a base to support all our members and the mathematical community more generally. But we have to re-build that community. Not just at USQ by at Charles Darwin, Flinders and others. We need to expand it in the bigger universities who have also suffered greatly in the last ten years or so.

USQ is the tip of a very large ice-berg. There should be no compromise over this. USQ should be expanding its offerings, not closing them off. As should every other university in Australia.

This is not just about mathematics and statistics or research in universities. This is a fundamental equity and social inclusion issue and university administrators across Australia have an obligation to the nation to help solve it, not make it worse. This includes those at USQ.

Jan Thomas
Executive Officer, AMSI

[This comment was also picked up by the Funneled Web. – Ed.]

I grew up in the New South Wales countryside and was able to become a mathematician thanks to an enlightened system of support which then existed for the teaching of mathematics in both country high schools and universities around Australia. It has really saddened me to see this support so badly eroded over the last 15 years throughout Australia. When the federal government recently announced at last additional funds for mathematics in Australian universities, I hoped that there was again a new chance for young Australians to learn and practice a discipline which is fundamental both for the economy and civilization. The action of the University of Southern Queensland in doing away with all non-service teaching courses in mathematics seems to run comletely contrary to this hope.

John Coates,
Sadleirian Professor of Pure Mathematics, University of Cambridge, FRS

Clearly comments from people like Peter Hall and John Henstridge highlight the parlous state of mathematics in Australia.
It is a complex problem without easy solution but it would help if government could take more direct interest.
I can understand a University cutting a vocational course if uneconomic, however for a University to really be called a University and be positioned for future opportunities it really needs to maintain a core knowledge of fundamental subjects in the arts and sciences, certainly including mathematics.

Professsor Peter Taylor
Executive Director
Australian Mathematics Trust

I strongly support the petition and I am very grateful to all who have shown concern about USQ and the broader issues of support for mathematical sciences in Australia.

Over the past 5 years, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has been devoting a lot of its resources to reverse the downward spiral in the supply of mathematically trained people. Hacking away the guts of the mathematical sciences unit in a regional university means that another large brick is being removed from the wall. This is not good for national education or for the acknowledged skills shortages in SET areas. Following the 2006 National Strategic Review of Mathematical Sciences Research in Australia, the Federal Government agreed to pay universities an additional $2700 per equivalent full time equivalent student unit. In the case of USQ, this amounts to an increase of over $1,000,000 per annum . AMSI staff and the Review team were involved in protracted negotiations with politicians and government officials to convince them that undergraduate mathematics education needed this additional support. The government will be advised that some universities have not been directing this money to its intended target. Contrary to some mis-information being spread, eight universities have already agreed to pass down to the mathematics coalface a significant fraction of the additional funds. I believe that more will follow suit. The remainder, using a phrase of V. I. Arnold, are the swine destroying the acorn tree.

Phil Broadbridge
Director, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute

I very much hope that the situation of the mathematical sciences in Australia will not continue to deteriorate. Like many Australian expatriate mathematicians, I owe a great deal to the education I received there. I hope future students will have access to the same opportunities.

Akshay Venkatesh
Associate Professor
New York University

I strongly support the petition and sincerely hope that USQ administrators will consider the long-term future and reputation of their University, not just short-term financial expediency.

Richard Brent, FAA, FIEEE, FACM, FIMA etc
ARC Federation Fellow

Strongly supported.

Neil Trudinger
Professor of Mathematics
Australian National University

— Department heads —

I strongly support this petition. The decline in mathematics and statistics is alarming and widely recognised as a serious problem by government, industry and the professional bodies that rely on mathematics and statistics as enabling disciplines. The Australian Government recognises that the country has a large and growing shortage of engineers, scientists and technologists; in 2007 it significantly increased its funding for domestic students in mathematics and statistics, and next year will offer further financial incentives to students in these disciplines by further funding to reduce the student fee contribution in these disciplines. The universities are the only national institutions that can provide responsible leadership in maintaining the intellectual infrastructure in the mathematical sciences both in the provision of graduates with mathematical training for current employment needs and of well-trained mathematical scientists for teaching in schools. The role of regional universities is particularly important for the provision of high quality mathematics teachers. I call on USQ to recognise that it has a high quality mathematics department that is contributing significantly to the national goals of providing well trained graduates in the mathematical and related sciences, especially through its service teaching, and that the proposed reduction is unreasonable, unfair and contrary to the national interest.

Paul Smith
Professor of Mathematics and Head of Department,
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia.

It appears that USQ has not compared itself to other Australian Universities in terms of its student staff ratios. Many university maths departments would die for 650 EFTSL. Surely a Science Faculty should not follow student demand, rather it should follow job demand.

Les Jennings,
Head, School of Mathematics and Statistics, UWA.

I strongly support the petition to maintain and develop the Mathematics and Mathematics Major at USQ.

There is no longer any doubt that Mathematics is vital to Australia’s continued prosperity in the more traditional areas such as engineering, the mining sector and innovative niche manufacturing. Mathematics is also a vital key to the emerging new areas such as bio-engineering, gene technology and micro/nano manufacturing. If Australia is to be part of the future, it is absolutely vital that it maintain and expand its teaching and research in the fundamental enabling sciences of Mathematics, physics and chemistry.

I urge USQ to maintain teaching and research programmes to the highest level in Mathematics. To fail in this is to break a fundamental covenant with the Australian community, which depends on its university sector for sensible advice about teaching and research in areas that will give us a stake in the future.

Professor Larry Forbes
Head, School of Mathematics and Physics
University of Tasmania

I support this petition and am filled with despair by low level of the USQ administration’s decision making process. As the former chairman of the University of Rochester mathematics department, I have seen this sort of thing before. Fortunately, it was reversed in our case, but not before much damage was done to the reputation of the university. In our case, the decision to cut the size of the mathematics department was universally condemned by mathematicians, physicists, chemists, economists, biologists, and other scholars. In the calculus of such cuts, the administration seems to have blinders on and to not have any idea of the collateral damage which their narrow minded decisions cause. The administration has no conception of the needs of students and other disciplines for excellence in mathematics. The Chinese have a saying: “The fish rots from the head.”

Joseph Neisendorfer
Professor Emeritus of Mathematics
University of Rochester

[See also this 1996 article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society on the Rochester affair, as well as Neisendorfer’s letter to the USQ Chancellor. -Ed]

— International mathematical leaders —

I strongly support this petition.

It would be a great disservice to Queenslanders and Australians generally if USQ vocationalized its science division. Maybe Queensland’s TAFE institutions should be expanded, but USQ has a much more essential mission of true higher education. In particular, mathematics is not only a valuable university subject in its own right, but also an intellectual foundation for all of science and engineering and even vocational training. If these essential subjects are not adequately popular at USQ, then it is the university’s mission to popularize them, not to appease apathy. A university with no math major is hardly a real university at all.

Greg Kuperberg
Department of Mathematics
University of California, Davis
United States

I strongly support the petition.

Alexander Kechris
Professor of Mathematics
California Institute of Technology

I support this petition.

A point that I have been making recently is that Australia has been providing the mathematics world with some of the very best talent in recent years (Tao, Akshay, Emmerton. Kisin, Calegari brothers,…) Clearly they were doing something right 10 to 20 years ago.

Peter Sarnak
Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics, Princeton University
Professor, Institute for Advanced Study

A university has no right to call itself such if it does not have a mathematics department involved in the furthering of the subject. I strongly support the petition.

Vaughan Jones
Professor, University of California, Berkeley

I strongly support the petition.

Like Terry Tao and many others, I benefited from a world-class (and free) education, in my case at the University of Canterbury, in dedicated honours courses; such courses no longer exist anywhere in New Zealand.

Robert McLachlan
Professor in Applied Mathematics
President, New Zealand Mathematical Society

I fully endorse this petition and support the efforts of Australian colleagues to maintain their country’s strong traditions of research and teaching in the mathematical sciences.

Neal Koblitz
Professor of Mathematics
University of Washington
Seattle, USA