It's cruel to let kids give up on maths, says chief scientist
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It's cruel to let kids give up on maths, says chief scientist

Australia's chief scientist, Alan Finkel, has accused universities of setting students up to fail by giving them an "unacceptable" lack of guidance about subject choice in senior high school.

Dr Finkel also warned parents that it was cruel to let children give up on maths before they understood the consequences of that decision.

His comments come as Sydney University maintained its share of early university preferences in NSW despite insisting on a band four in HSC mathematics for anyone intending to study economics, engineering or science from next year.

Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, says parents are cruel to let children stop studying maths before they understand the ramifications of that decision

Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, says parents are cruel to let children stop studying maths before they understand the ramifications of that decisionCredit:Rohan Thomson

In a speech delivered to the Mathematical Association of Victoria conference on Friday, Dr Finkel said a failure to insist on prerequisites sent the message that students could "game" the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

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"We shouldn't have to tell universities to face up to their responsibilities as part of the education continuum," his speech warned.

"For that matter, we shouldn't have to tell them that it's unacceptable to enrol students with a level of preparation that sets them up to fail."

Students that failed to study maths in a misguided attempt to inflate their ATAR dropped out, failed or barely scraped a pass, he said.

Dr Finkel urged maths teachers to contact vice-chancellors and tell them how hard it is to persuade their students that they should take challenging maths courses all the way to year 12 to keep the doors of opportunity open.

"Let's make it impossible for vice-chancellors to be ignorant of the fact that their policies have human implications and costs."

Dr Finkel said students should not be allowed to give up on maths because they didn't feel like studying it. "We don't let children starve because they say they don't feel like eating," he said.

"To my mind, it's just cruel to give them the choice about maths at an age when they cannot possibly fathom the consequences."

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Dr Finkel also warned about too much focus on "soft skills", such as creative thinking and problem solving, at the expense of disciplines such as maths, chemistry or law.

"I've hired hundreds of people," he said. "And that's how I know that the wrong way to build a business is with a group of capable people who collectively specialise in nothing at all."

Earlier this week, the University Admissions Centre released preliminary preferences for NSW universities by school leavers.

Sydney University had the biggest share at 15.76 per cent, despite becoming the first university to re-introduce prerequisites after many years.

It was closely followed by the University of NSW and the University of Technology.

From 2022, the Australian National University will also require students to have studied English and maths.

Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald

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