Incentivising Maths: do the arguments add up?
The Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan, is strongly considering incentivising the study of Maths at higher level in secondary schools by awarding bonus points. The ultimate aim seems to be to increase the number and quality of third-level Science graduates in order to facilitate the so-called “knowledge economy”.
Economic growth is vital given the devastating effects sudden mass unemployment is having on Irish people and Irish society. But will the Minister’s plan concerning bonus points for maths actually make a difference?
Despite a narrowing of the gap, Science still lags behind the likes of Law and Medicine when it comes to the most sought after third-level courses. In effect, a majority of the Leaving Cert high achievers, the vast majority of whom do honours Maths, eventually opt for non-Science subjects. So unless greater effort is put into advertising third level Science research in general the introduction of bonus points for Maths will have minimal effect.
There is a solution to this problem, however. Instead of introducing “universal” bonus points for Maths, as the Minister seems to be contemplating, such bonus points should only be actualised upon the student applying for a Science-based course. No only would this make Science courses more attractive, it would make them more attractive to exactly the right cohort of students. There is no reason why this couldn’t apply to Biology, Chemistry, Applied Maths and Maths-Physics also (though the latter two subjects aren’t available in all second-level schools).
[I think there is a similar case to be made for such bonus points applying for students wishing to study the arts and humanities at third level, i.e. bonus points for Gaeilge, English, French, Music, Religion etc. for those who apply for the concomitant third level course. In this way it remedies one of the injustices of our present system whereby a student can be denied a place on a third level course despite having a brilliant track record at that discipline, simply because they didn’t get the requisite number of points in a totally unrelated area.]
Aside from improving the number and quality of third level Science graduates, I don’t see any other essential point to focusing on improving the number of students who take honours maths for the leaving cert. Obviously it is a worthwhile goal to help raise standards across the board – but why focus exclusively on Maths? Outside of specifically science-centred jobs such as software engineering, pharmacy, actuary etc., ordinary level maths is sufficient for almost every other occupation.
The excessive focus on the sciences highlights an increasing utilitarian approach to social and economic policy. We can see this approach in the calls to abolish both the NUI and the Seanad, the prioritising of science course at third level to the near-fatal detriment of the arts and the humanities, and also in the attitude which underpinned our property and banking collapse. The common denominator (pardon the pun) to all these is the “profit margin imperative”. Anything that does not contribute towards short term profit, or which drains capital away from short term profit-generating mechanisms, is seen as a burden Ireland inc. should not, and increasingly cannot shoulder. There is little sense of the common good in the profit margin imperative, and no sense that, unlike profit, education and culture are self-evident goods in themselves which require no further justification for their existence and support.
It is a disservice to science to reduce it to a means to an economic end. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word for knowledge (scientia), and maybe we fail to appreciate that the hunger for knowledge is as much a motivator as financial considerations. Science appeals to students not simply because they can make money out of it, but also because of the wonder it invokes in them about the majesty and complexity of life. Most of the major scientific discoveries have generated little or no short term financial gain for either the scientist or their country-of-origin. Furthermore, our economic recovery cannot and will not rely exclusively on science and technology. Our artistic, cultural, religious and sporting heritage, in combination with our traditional warmth as a people, all play a vital role in attracting tourists from across the globe. The trades, though taking a battering recently with the property collapse, rely on craftsmanship more than calculation. Our third-level system could become a world leader in attracting foreign students to research a wide and varied number of subjects. And, probably most importantly of all, entrepreneurship, which is based on a whole host of non-scientific attributes, holds the key to an Irish-led economic recovery more robust than relying on tempermental foreign investment.