• From the Director

Why study maths at university

It’s crucial to encourage students who enjoy maths to study it at university, even if they won’t achieve top A level Maths grades

Why study maths at university
  • Published: 08/03/2024

This recent report from the Heads of Department of Mathematical Sciences (HoDoMS) makes interesting reading. It compares participation in maths degrees in high and low UCAS tariff universities with respect to:

  • recruitment on to maths degree programmes
  • rates of maths graduate employment
  • the types of employment graduates progress on to.

The report highlights a substantial shortage in our economy of people with complex numerical and statistical skills. It also shows that maths degrees are an excellent route into employment in a wide range of occupations – from finance, engineering and cybersecurity to health, ecology and climate change – that contribute significantly to our economy. This is true for graduates from both high and low tariff universities.

However, a key finding of the report is that for maths degree programmes:

“Those with the highest entry requirements are accepting increasing numbers of entrants. Those with lower entry requirements are accepting fewer entrants, with the largest relative declines among institutions with the lowest entry requirements.”

Maths degree programmes with lower UCAS tariffs (those requiring B/C grades in A level Maths) are struggling to recruit students, despite strong retention ratesi and the employment prospects of their graduates being very good. Low tariff does not mean low quality.

So, why is this relevant to maths teachers in schools and colleges?

I suspect that that A level Maths teachers are keen to encourage the high fliers in their classes – those likely to get A and A* grades – to choose to study maths at university. But they may be less likely to give the same encouragement to students they expect to achieve B and C grades.

Students who choose to study A level Maths tend to be among the highest academic achievers, and a high proportion of A level Maths students achieve high grades compared to other subjects. For example, in 2023, A or A* grades were achieved by 27.0% of A level Biology candidates, 25.9% of A level English Literature candidates, 24.8% of A level Geography candidates and 19.1% of A level Psychology candidates, whereas A or A* grades were achieved by 41.9% of A level Maths candidates. By default therefore, compared to teachers of other subjects, maths teachers are more likely to focus their encouragement to study the subject at university on the highest A level attainers.

The employment data in the HoDoMS report show that studying maths at degree level is an excellent choice for those achieving grades B and C in A level Maths, as well as for those achieving grades A and A*. There are maths degree places available for these students, and the degrees they achieve lead to excellent jobs.

From the point of view of the students, if they are likely to achieve a grade B or C, they may feel that they are average (or below) for their A level Maths class, and so might not think of applying to study maths at university. Positive advice from their maths teacher may make all the difference, opening up exciting future career opportunities they may not have realised were available to them. 

There are very good reasons for teachers of A level Maths to encourage those students they expect to achieve grades B or C in A level Maths to apply to study maths at university, just as much as they do for those they expect to achieve grades A or A*. For students who enjoy maths, a maths degree can be an excellent option, even if maths isn’t their highest A level grade.

A skills shortage I am acutely aware of as NCETM Director is the lack of specialist secondary maths teachers. Another telling quote from the HoDoMS report is that:

“The proportion of employed mathematical sciences graduates from institutions with the lowest entry requirement working in education 15 months after graduation was considerably higher than the proportion of graduates from institutions with the highest entry requirements (25% versus 8%). This category includes teaching.”

Lower entry tariff maths degree programmes are an important part of our higher education system. They provide valuable qualifications for students, which lead to excellent employment prospects. Teachers of A level Maths and school/college careers advisers should ensure that all young people are aware of the value of studying maths at degree level, even if they are not near the top of their A level Maths class. This advice will benefit the young people concerned, and help address important skills shortages in our national economy, including the shortage of secondary maths teachers.

i Best UK universities for mathematics – league table, The Guardian

The scatter diagram shows that high and low tariff maths degrees have similar retention rates.

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