Saturday June 7 2008
It is with deep regret that I must alert you to a frightening decline in the quality of maths in reports complaining about the frightening decline in the quality of maths in Britain. “The value of mathematics”, by thinktank Reform, has received a huge amount of flattering media coverage this week in the Times, the Telegraph, and even scored a second puff in the Guardian from Professor Marcus du Sautoy himself. There is less maths around. We suffer economically. People think it’s cool to be bad at sums. These are bad things.
An early factual claim in Reform’s document is simple: “about 40% of mathematics graduates enter financial services”. This – we are invited to agree – is a good thing. The report’s reference for 40% is a simple link to prospects.ac.uk, which isn’t very informative as it’s rather a large website. Chasing through the pages there, you will find “What Do Graduates Do?”, and then the maths page. There were 4070 maths graduates in their sampling frame of 2006. Only 2010 of those, however, are in UK employment (1.5% are working abroad, and the rest are studying for a higher degree, or a teaching qualification, or unemployed, or unavailable for employment, and so on).
Of those 2010 – not 4070 – 37.9% are indeed working as “Business and Financial Professionals and Associate Professionals”. So correct me if I’m wrong – I’m always eager for that to happen – but by my maths 2010 x 0.379 = 761.79, and that divided by 4070 = 0.1871, but let’s round up like the angry maths profs did and say that about 20% of maths graduates enter financial services. Not 40%. I call this “arithmetic”. For a bunch of people complaining about the substitution of woolly modern notions like “relevance” and “applied maths” in place of high end mathematical techniques, they don’t make a particularly good advert for their own skill set.
And even moreso when the dubious reasoning begins, like with their idea that if there were simply more people around with maths knowledge, there would therefore automatically be more (and more lucrative) jobs around requiring that knowledge, into which the new maths graduates would lucratively and instantly fall. I’m not entirely sure it works like that – I am of course not an economist – but in extremis, I would mention that there are quite a few men in the north who are very good at mining, and I don’t see anyone in a hurry to open up new pits.
Unfortunately, in any case, even this aspect of their report may be marred by simple errors in applied arithmetic. The thinktank is worried that the loss of A-level mathematicians has resulted in lost earnings for the economy. If the number of maths candidates had remained constant, they say, there would have been an additional 430,700 over the period 1989 to 2007. In the adjacent table they say 430,031, but heck, that’s the least of our worries. They go on to reason thusly: “Each of these students would have earned an additional £3,080 per year due to the market premium on A-level mathematics, equating to £136,000 over their lifetime. The total gain to the economy over the period would have been over £9 billion.”
Now we’ll put aside the fact that the BBC said “a maths A-level puts on average an extra £10,000 a year on a salary [not £3,080], says Reform” because I can’t get £9 billion for that period with those numbers (I get £12 billion assuming a linear decline, although they may have access to more detailed data), and in any case Reform make assumptions which are not, at face value, tenable, including the notion that the extra earn would have survived a widening group of people with maths A level. We could go on.
I’m happy to agree that maths is economically useful, that maths exams are dumbing down, that people avoid difficult school subjects, and that humanities graduates who think maths is uncool are bores. What I would like is someone who can be bothered to sit down and reinforce my prejudices without perpetrating crass errors of overinterpretation and getting the basic arithmetic wrong. I’ve never fully seen the point of them, but I suspect that’s what thinktanks are there for. Again, I may be wrong.
[Sorry this was late up, my laptop broke and I'm away, will pop in links and any extra working later. I've had a couple of emails saying "the 40% figure was right because lots of the people who do postgrad will then go into finance. To them I say: (a) why have figures if they're made up estimates and (b) says who? Will the people going off to do teaching courses work in finance? And will that make 40%? Etc /rant ]