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A level maths

Debate

In a bid to halt declining student numbers, the Joint Board of Moderators has temporarily suspended the requirement for A level mathematics as a prerequisite to an accredited degree programme in civil engineering.

This week we ask: Is A level mathematics an essential grounding for a future civil engineering professional?

Yes

David Muir Wood, head of civil engineering, University of Bristol

Some 72% of UK universities run civil engineering courses which are not viable; 27% of civil engineering graduates do not join the industry (NCE 30 May). Admissions tutors know there are too many courses chasing too few students with the necessary combination of entry qualifications and commitment.

One response is to lower the entry hurdle, removing the need for civil engineering undergraduates to have A level mathematics.

An admitted student is implicitly declared capable of progressing to a degree. With only GCSE mathematics, ability to cope with the mathematical demands of first year courses in structures and hydraulics is affected. Admitting weaker students to fill admissions targets requires investment in additional academic and pastoral support to bring them up to the required level.

European harmonisation of degree programmes (the Bologna Declaration) is looking at a typical five year programme. We know from our student exchange programmes that the mathematical demands placed on engineering undergraduates at good European universities are challenging for even our best students.

Perhaps we should give fewer students a broader civil engineering education developing both the mathematical skills and the creativity that enables civil engineers to work confidently with other construction professionals. This would produce a clearer differentiation between technicians, engaged in implementation of today's knowledge, and engineers competent to design beyond the limits of current practice.

Professional engineers need to communicate mathematically, verbally and graphically. Without a facility in mathematics, engineers are cut off from the logic of scientific discovery.

Input standards have been used as an unsatisfactory surrogate for output standards. The Engineering Professors' Council has developed an output standard - a language with which the abilities of graduating engineers can be described. Much of this standard is concerned with the process by which engineers convert real problems into models for analysis. We should be seeking imaginative ways of teaching engineers to use the language of mathematics in their modelling.

Construction of appropriate models requires clear mathematical and physical understanding.

We cannot rely blindly on the outpourings of electronic black boxes.

No

Jon Prichard, professional development director, Institution of Civil Engineers

There is no doubt that the ability 'to think logically and to analyse' are key attributes of a competent engineer. Traditionally such personal skills have developed and flourished through the teaching of maths at school.

Civil engineering is competing against an increasing spectrum of careers requiring numeracy skills. The pool of those obtaining such skills is getting smaller.

It has been informally estimated that 10,000 fewer candidates will chose to begin Maths AS level courses this autumn, a reduction of 15% on previous years.

It is widely known that the UK construction industry is facing a skills crisis. The hike in graduate salaries published in last week's NCE amply reflects this. In February, the JBM had a choice - to maintain the status quo and contribute to the deepening skills shortage; or to remove temporarily a self-imposed obstacle to course admission (and align themselves with the other professional engineering institutions in the process).

An inflexible approach would have commenced a downward spiral, probably leading to further closures of civil engineering departments. Instead, the JBM has taken the pragmatic view that those running civil engineering programmes can elect to change the emphasis of their entry requirements without diminishing their learning outcomes. There are many talented and bright individuals who do not currently sit maths A level, who can now take up a challenging and rewarding career in our profession.

It could be argued that our insistence on such a high level of maths in the past has to some extent stultified creativity and constrained the diversity of talents needed to put civil engineers back in the driving seat. As we take the next steps into the digital and multi-disciplinary team working era there is scope for others with talents that are less directly grounded in maths to join us.

If a relaxation of the maths entry requirements is successful, then perhaps we should consider permanent adoption. We shouldn't be afraid of change.

The facts

The number of acceptances on to civil engineering courses fell 5.3% last year, figures from the University & Colleges Admissions Service reveal. In the last five years applications have fallen 32% and acceptances 29% (NCE 17 January).

A staggering 96% of civils departments say students' grasp of maths is inadequate, with 55% putting their first years through remedial maths coaching (NCE 2 May).

Almost 70% of UK civil engineering departments say they have severe problems recruiting students. And 77% report that numbers have declined.

For every 20 students starting a degree in civil engineering, three are failing to complete the course. Half drop out because they cannot cope with the workload or subject matter.

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