An Interview with Michael Savage: Some Questions and Answers About Math Education in England

Dec 28, 2010 by

 Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1)   Professor Savage, could you tell us a bit about your educational background, research interests, and specifics about mathematics education?

Let me list my education and various positions in education: 

  • BSc (Mathematics) , University of Manchester                            1960-63
  • PhD (Applied Mathematics) , University of Leeds                        1963-66
  • Visiting professor, University of Wisconsin                                  1968-69
  • Lecturer in Applied Mathematics, University of Leeds                  1966- 96
  • Professor, School of Physics & Astronomy University of Leeds    1997- present

My research interests include:

  • Fluid Dynamics, (thin liquid films in lubrication and film Coating)
  • Wetting; (the effect of molecular interactions on macroscopic fluid flows)

Mathematics Education:

  • Teaching and learning of Applied Mathematics (Newtonian Mechanics;        mathematical modelling and problem solving) in schools/colleges and universities.
  • Director of the Mechanics in Action Programme, 1984-1994.
  • Joint Author of the influential mathematics report: “Measuring the Mathematics Problem”, Engineering Council, London,2000.
  • National Teaching Fellowship Award, 2006.
  • Joint Author of the 2009 applied mathematics report: Newton’s Mechanics: Who Needs It?”;
  • Leader of a current STEM initiative/proposal: “Higher Level Skills for HE STEM Students: Mathematical Modelling and Problem Solving”

2) What opinion do you have about the recent tuition fee increases in Great Britain?

The Coalition Government have said that the increase in tuition fees is simply due to the need for cuts of approximately 25% across Government Departments. In Higher Education, the cuts will only be applied to the teaching budget (whilst research costs will be protected) – and this translates into an almost 75% cut in the overall teaching budget to universities.  As a result universities will be able to raise student fees from their current level of £3k per annum to anything between £6k and £9k per annum – which represents a student fee increase of 100-200%.

Such a staggering rise in fees will have a substantial impact on the Higher Education sector.  Many commentators are predicting a substantial fall in the number of students entering Higher Education and the closure of several Higher Education institutions-particularly those who relied primarily on the teaching budget and will now depend on student fee income.

Personally, I believe this whole exercise is not about saving costs!  Cost cutting is simply a smokescreen for a more subtle hidden agenda “to reshape the University sector with fewer (well motivated) students in fewer universities.”

Exactly how I reached this conclusion will become apparent in my answers to the remaining questions.

3)      How well prepared do you feel students in England are for  Mathematics Related Courses in Higher Education?)

Having taught mathematics (both pure and applied maths) to mathematicians, physicists and engineers over the past 40 years it is perfectly clear that today’s undergraduates enter Higher Education far less mathematically prepared (in both pure and applied maths) than did their predecessors in the 1960’s to 1980’s.

Substantial evidence of a  decline in  basic pure mathematical  skills amongst first year science and engineering undergraduates became apparent in the mid- 1990’s and this gave rise to the mathematics report “Measuring The Mathematics Problem”, Engineering Council, London 2000.

Following publication of this report, the mathematics curriculum- at ages 16-19 –  in schools and colleges was changed so as to give more time ( an extra 33% )  for pure mathematics. 

Unfortunately, this increase was at the expense of applied mathematics which suffered a 33% decrease in time allocation and, as a result, the traditionally well balanced mathematics curriculum became skewed in favour of pure maths in the ratio of 2:1- as documented in the 2009 report;  “Newton’s Mechanics: Who Needs It?”

The overall effect of these changes in 2010 is that university departments report that that there are many students now entering Higher Education with a high  grade  in A-level Mathematics whose fluency in standard mathematical techniques has improved yet whose applied problem solving ability has declined. This is particularly noticeable in science and engineering where the ability to solve physical problems using mathematical modelling and mathematics is an essential skill.

4)      Why do we see this decline in students’ mathematical ability at 16-19?

The decline in students’ mathematical abilities at 16-19 is typical of a more general decline in educational standards following changes introduced at O level in 1988 and A  level in the early 1990’s.

In order to move from an elitist educational system (catering for the top 5-10% of the age group) towards a more inclusive system that permits entry to Higher Education for 40-50% of the age group, the method of student assessment had to change. This was achieved by replacing ‘end of course’ examinations by modular examinations.

For example, the 2 year A level curriculum for each subject, with examinations at the end, was divided into 6 bite-sized modules-with each assessed separately and multiple re-sits permitted. The consequence is that A level examinations now have much lower failure rates and a much larger percentage of students gaining A grade ( 40%+ in mathematics ). At the top end it is now very difficult to distinguish the brilliant from the bright from the well trained.

An additional downside of our current educational system at 14-19 is that students’ real education has been sacrificed to a culture of ‘teaching to test’  that trains students in  how to pass/get high marks in examinations that are much less demanding than end of course examinations. In mathematics for example, the modular structure means that students do not study topics in sufficient depth, nor do they tackle sufficient examples/problems that enable them to make connections and develop broader understanding of the subject and its various skills. This structure does succeed in keeping weaker students on board yet sadly fails to stretch the most able.

5)      What additional concerns do you have about Higher Education in the United Kingdom?

In 1992 the Conservative Government established an extra tier of new universities, the Post-92 group, thus increasing the number from 100 to 165.

It was this decision, alongside the change in the A level assessment regime,  that  effectively opened up  Higher Education to a significant fraction of the age group who previously would not have had the opportunity to study at university. In fact from 1990 to  2010, the number of students entering Higher Education rose from approximately 150,000 to 450,000.


  •         Many people are now questioning the wisdom of introducing a modular curriculum and assessment regime at O and A level since this is regarded as the prime cause of the decline in educational standards in Secondary Education. The situation is currently under review by the new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, who is said to favour a return to ‘end of course examinations’.
  •          Many people are now questioning the wisdom of expanding the university sector so rapidly. There is  a  widely held view that there are now too many universities and  too many students – including  many taking courses of dubious value in terms of their academic merit and value as a springboard to employment.

6)      What Conclusions have you drawn?

If only the UK Coalition Government was brave enough to acknowledge that it was a mistake to establish so many new universities in 1992 and that educational standards in secondary education have since declined, they would have a very strong case for reshaping the university sector without any substantial increase in tuition fees.

The case for fewer universities with fewer, well motivated students would, in my opinion, attract much popular support. By demanding higher  educational standards at A level (standards that do prepare students for university) ,  A levels would once again be held in high esteem, the Higher Education sector would naturally contract, money would be saved and all this without subjecting future generations of students to  excessively high  tuition fees.


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