Reading the QAA Subject Benchmark Statement for maths

Maths has a history. Who knew?

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

I wake up to the news that The Spectator has been reading QAA documents.

While I’m generally in favour of people reading subject benchmarks, it does appear that somebody here hasn’t quite grasped the point.

To start with, here is the actual benchmark statement for 2019, and here’s the version out for consultation in 2022 – go and have a read if you haven’t already. The first thing we should think about is true for any sector documentation we might come across – namely what is this document for and who is it written by.

Benchmarks are not rules

Subject benchmarks are, to start with, advisory. They do not prescribe what should or should not be taught on any programme of study. What they do is offer a guide as to what is generally taught on programmes with these names. As the 2022 document itself says:

Subject Benchmark Statements provide general guidance for understanding the learning outcomes associated with a course but are not intended to represent a national curriculum in a subject or to prescribe set approaches to teaching, learning or assessment. Instead, they allow for flexibility and innovation in course design within a framework agreed by the subject community

This should give us another steaming mug of clue. The Quality Assurance Agency do not write these documents. If you look at section 6 of the document, you’ll see a list of just under 20 people that did. Yes, there is a member of the QAA executive – as secretariat – but all of the rest are academics working in the field, or employers recruiting from the field. I dare say some other academics may disagree with the work of this particular group of academics – for that reason the whole thing was out for consultation (this started on 21 September and closed on 2 November)

What’s on my course

Although every maths course will be different, it’s fair to think there’s some stuff you might generally expect a graduate of a UK university maths course to have covered. So people that teach a variety of these courses have come together to set out what these expectations may be. This would be helpful, for example, if you were an academic setting up a new course who wanted to make sure it was comparable to other, similarly named, courses. Or if you were an employer, wanting to be sure that most graduates in a subject will have covered the stuff you are interested in. Or a prospective student – or someone supporting a prospective student – wanting to know if you’ll have plenty of time on the bit of maths that makes you happy.

Despite being sector owned, and abundantly a sensible thing, one of the periodic Office for Students self-owns means that a benchmark has no standing at all in the regulatory framework in England. Elsewhere in the UK, a cyclical review that permeates down to subject level may give some thought as to whether your maths degree looks – broadly – like a maths degree. But the statement is no list of checkboxes. Nobody – to be abundantly clear – will be checking up on you to see if you are following it. Although, frankly, students, the various academic societies in the subject, and employers make have some thoughts if you are ignoring big chunks of what is usually on a maths degree in 2022.

An example? Well, it is now generally expected if you have any kind of degree in mathematical sciences you will be familiar with at least one programming language. If you did maths at university in the 1980s this may not have been the case. If you are teaching a maths course that doesn’t include the opportunity to gain familiarity with the various programming approaches used in industry your graduates probably are going to look weaker to employers than in places where this is a key part of what is taught.

It’s also expected that you’ll have a course that is accessible to people from all kinds of different backgrounds – and one that deals with interesting maths from all kind of cultures and all kinds of approaches. After all, maths has always – as the document takes some pains to make out – been an international endeavour, with breakthroughs and insights likely to come from all parts of the world. To this ends, the document suggests some equality, diversity, and inclusion stuff course teams should be thinking about.

Additional skills

One of these is to suggest optionality within the curriculum – after a sound grounding in the basics, students should be allowed to follow their interests and aptitudes. Another is to highlight the opportunity for learning outside the academic setting – placements allowing students to apply what they are learning to the kind of jobs they might be doing as graduates.

And the one that is for some reason contentious is the suggestion that we should maybe be highlighting where some of this maths comes from, and that some of the history of mathematics (like pretty much any history of anything) touches on some dark corners of human activity (the fact that a lot of the fundamentals of modern statistics are grounded in Francis Galton’s and Karl Pearson’s work in eugenics is not a pleasant one when you love statistics as much as I do – I couldn’t do “yes, but does it correlate?” on the podcast if it was not for Karl Pearson).

You could see this, maybe, as raking over stuff that is best left undiscussed. You could see it as a departure from practical skills into the history of science – something that has no bearing on the career of a young numerate professional. You could also see it as something that very clearly addresses the subject as it is now – people always have and always will use mathematics to do ethically dubious things. If you go on to work in finance, for example, or the actuarial sciences, or in artificial intelligence, or in what we still somehow call “big data” you will be dragged into questions of, for the want of a clearer term, ethics.

Clearly some people of particular political persuasions are triggered by the world “decolonisation”. If that’s where you are coming from, just take away that there’s nothing in any of this helpful document that tries to tell anyone what they can or cannot teach or learn.

16 November update: The Mail has now leaned in to this abject nonsense. On the front page, no less. Again, while I agree that more people should read about QAA subject benchmarks I am not sure this is the best way to learn more.

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