In the UK, in the early 1990s, serious problems were emerging in mathematics, engineering and other departments in universities. There were many reports from professional bodies and research papers which highlighted students lack of basic skills, lack of preparedness in mathematics, high failure rates, and low numbers of students wanting to study mathematically-based subjects. It was in response to these problems that universities began to look into ways of better supporting students with their mathematics. At the time, it became particularly urgent to support students in engineering and as time has gone on so this issue has grown. In recent years clear evidence has emerged that the number of disciplines impacted by the mathematics problem has broadened, from its initial impact upon the disciplines of mathematics, engineering and physics, with issues now being seen within chemistry, and the biological, health and social sciences.
Since 2000 there have been numerous investigations into and publications on what has become known as ‘the maths problem’. In 2004 an influential government report reinforced the concerns, finding that, until problems associated with mathematics teaching in schools had been resolved, higher education would have to accommodate students who were inadequately prepared. From 2010 onwards a series of national reports highlighted issues relating to mathematics education prior to (and in some cases including) higher education: Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, Hodgen et al. 2010, House of Lords, Institute of Physics, Nuffield Foundation, Science Community Representing Education, Royal Society of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce. Among the conclusions of these reports were:
- “We estimate that, of those entering higher education in any year, some 330,000 would benefit from recent experience of studying some mathematics (including statistics) at a level beyond GCSE. At the moment fewer than 125,000 have done so” (Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education 2011);
- “English universities are side-lining quantitative and mathematical content because students and staff lack the requisite confidence and ability. This has the potential to damage standards, in English universities” (Royal Society of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce 2012);
- The latest of these reports, from the House of Lords and published on 24 July 2012, exactly a week before the end of the National HE STEM Programme, commented that “the level at which [mathematics] is taught [in schools] does not meet the requirements needed to study STEM subjects at undergraduate level”.
These reports and the on-the-ground experience of those involved in providing mathematics and statistics support helped to identify the key needs to be addressed.