Date: Mon, 14 Apr 2008 19:39:09 +0100 (BST)
From: Prof. J.H. Coates <>
Subject: The future of mathematics in Australia

The Hon. Julia Gillard MP,
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education.

Dear Deputy Prime Minister,

I am writing as an Australian mathematician living overseas to express my deep concern about the future of mathematics (including statistics) as a major discipline in Australian universities. I hope you will not mind if I spell out a little the reasons for my concerns.

Firstly, there is a strictly personal one. I grew up in the New South Wales countryside near Taree. No one in my family had any background in mathematics. But I was able to begin learning mathematics in all its depth and beauty, and eventually spend my whole life engrossed in the subject, because of the excellent teaching I received at Taree High School, followed by a superb undergraduate mathematics course at the newly created School of General Studies in the Australian National University, Canberra.
There are many other Australian mathematicians, whose story of how they entered mathematics is different in detail from mine, but all of whom share a common feature in our experience of gaining access to the subject. Namely, we were able to learn the basics of mathematics and get a taste for its intellectual challenges from a high school and university system which placed value and pride in having good teachers and good Departments of Mathematics.

Secondly, I have a great concern for the economic and cultural price that Australia will pay in the long term for the failure to support teaching and research in mathematics adequately. Let me just cite one example. Since Pat Moran became founding Professor of Statistics in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Australian National University in the 1950’s,
Australia has had one of the best schools of research and teaching in
Statistics and Probability in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that
Statistics and Applied Probablity are the great areas of the applications
of mathematics for the 21st century, with huge parts of the financial and
industrial world, as well as the biological sciences and vast amounts of
technology dependent upon them. But I have the impression that Australian universities have completely neglected to support adequately, let alone build up, this precious national intellectual jewel. And one could cite similar examples in many other parts of the mathematical sciences.

I have seen over the last decade how this general lack of support and
appreciation for mathematics in Australian universities has affected the
morale of Australian mathematicians, especially those working in
Australia, but also those of us working overseas. I was delighted to learn
that recently the federal government did take a concrete step to try and
ensure that universities would receive more federal funds, specifically to
reverse the adverse financial situation of Departments of Mathematics.
However, the concrete case of what is happening at this moment in the
University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba seems to show that this
measure is not working in practice, and that much more has to be done to
prevent the extinction of basic mathematical work and research in its own
right as a discipline in many Australian universities. I feel especially
strongly about the particular case of the University of Southern
Queensland, both because the planned cuts are so severe (as you must know, the University plans to cut by almost 50% the staff in the Department of Mathematics and Computing, to eliminate all non-service teaching in mathematics and statistics, and also to eliminate the majors in both these disciplines), but also because I fear it will harm the access to mathematics of young Australians living in the Queensland countryside.

Let me end by expressing my profound belief that Australia needs a
flourishing mathematical community for the economic and cultural well
being of all its citizens. But more must be done in concrete terms to
ensure that the natural talents of many Australians in this field can
flower fully in Australia.

Yours sincerely,

John Coates

Sadleirian Professor of Pure Mathematics, FRS
University of Cambridge

Used with permission.