THE quality of students completing year 12 maths has deteriorated so much over the past 20 years that standards are now ''dangerously low'', according to research commissioned by Australia's leading universities.
Just one week after the Rudd government launched plans for a new national curriculum that would change the way maths is taught in schools, universities are being urged to provide students with remedial classes to deal with the fact that many are entering courses with insufficient maths skills.
A report commissioned by the Group of Eight universities - which includes Melbourne and Monash - has painted a bleak picture of maths in Australia, with trainee teachers suffering ''mathematics phobia'' and high school students often dropping the subject to try to maximise their tertiary entrance scores. This meant that Australia faced a twin problem: a severe shortage of maths teachers, and not enough students doing the subject at the more advanced levels.
''Australia has gone backwards over the last 20 years in terms of the quality and quantity of students completing year 12 mathematics,'' the report said. ''This is despite considerable effort put into improving the situation, including government funding. This deterioration hasn't been the case in every country.''
The review cited figures from the latest Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, which evaluates maths and science at year 4 and year 8 in countries around the world.
This study showed that only one in three Australian students in year 8 had a ''positive attitude'' towards maths, and that Australia is being outperformed by England, the US and most Asian countries. In a bid to counter the drop in students who enter universities without sufficient maths skills, the review recommends vice-chancellors:
Set up remedial programmes to boost maths capabilities of students in tertiary courses.
Make maths part of primary teaching courses to give confidence to future teachers.
Encourage more co-operation between education and maths faculties. Go8 chairman Alan Robson said vice-chancellors would consider the review's findings in a bid to ''attempt to arrest the decline''.
The review of mathematics education comes after Education Minister Julia Gillard last week launched the new national curriculum that will bring consistency to the four core school subjects: English, maths, science and history.
Under the changes, maths will be scaled back from prep to year 10 so that fewer topics are covered, but three main ''content strands'' - numbers and algebra, measurement and geometry, statistics and probability - will be covered more comprehensively. -The Age