How the University of Bath is encouraging participation in level 3 maths

David Howells is responsible for leading the central Undergraduate Admissions team, which selects and processes all applications for undergraduate study. In this interview, conducted in March 2020, he discusses why the University of Bath values level 3 maths and what the University is doing to encourage participation in it.

Why is studying level 3 mathematics so important? What is valuable about these qualifications?

Mathematics skills underpin a wide range of university subjects, including the obvious such as Chemistry, Physics or Engineering, but also research methods and analysis across Social Sciences, Health and Biosciences. In a data-driven world, having recent experience of using mathematics at an appropriate level can really help prepare a student for success at university and beyond, even where it isn’t essential to have it.

What are the reasons for the University of Bath promoting Core Maths, AS and A level Mathematics, and AS and A level Further Mathematics?

Because maths is useful! What’s important is that students have the right preparation in mathematics for them and their chosen courses. Further Mathematics A level can be really useful for students wanting to study mathematical-intensive courses such as Mechanical Engineering or Mathematics itself, but the more practical and applied nature of Core Maths qualifications will give students who want to study Psychology or Business the general numerical skills they will find useful on their course. Our approach at Bath is to recognise that extra study in the right kind of maths can be really beneficial to students, and we want them to know that.

Beyond that, we believe that all students should have the opportunity to do level 3 study that will equip them for the future. We know that for schools it can be challenging if they don’t have enough students to offer viable classes (particularly for Core Maths) and we want to do what we can to promote these opportunities so all students can benefit.

What approach has your university taken to recognising the value of maths in your admissions offers? Why were these measures chosen?

We make alternative (reduced) offers to A level students who choose to take additional maths study at level 3, tailored to their course. That might be Core Maths or it might be an extra A level in Mathematics or Further Mathematics (course dependent). This matches our approach to Extended Projects, as we want to recognise that different students will have different ways of demonstrating their preparation for a degree though extra study.

Have the new admissions criteria had an impact on application numbers, the profile of the cohort, and/or the preparedness of students for the courses they take?

Our approach to maths alternative offers is new this year, so in some ways we’re waiting to see. What we have seen is an increase in applicants who are taking Core Maths, which is really encouraging and exactly what we want to see. Our approach draws on our experience with Extended Projects, where we have seen increases in students’ Year 1 results for those with the additional preparation.

Why should other universities follow the same approaches? What messages should universities be sending to students, parents and teachers?

Level 3 maths is important a for a wide range of subjects, but qualifications like Core Maths will only succeed if we engage with them and students (and their parents) can see their benefits up-front. The more universities put these qualifications front and centre the more students will get to benefit from the extra preparation.

What do students need to know about the importance of studying mathematics at level 3?

Even where it isn’t essential, maths is still useful for a wide range of degrees. It doesn’t have to be advanced algebra or calculus either – having a comprehensive and fresh understanding of statistics is valuable in academic research across all of science, management and social sciences.

Why is it important for school/college senior leaders to provide a full programme of level 3 maths options for their students? What advantages would this bring? Are there ways around the possible perceived funding issues?

While running schools is not our area of expertise, one of the most convincing arguments we’ve seen in favour of level maths options is the synergy with other A levels – time invested in teaching students Core Maths will benefit them in their Psychology and Biology A levels.

What do you see as the ‘next steps’ in terms of increasing participation in level 3 maths? What barriers are there and how might they be overcome?

More universities need to recognise the importance of this – qualifications will only be viable if students want to take them, and some are only going to want to take them if they can see the benefits they bring concretely (e.g. in their applications to university).

We also need to let go of a fear that promoting maths will put off some students – saying we value maths skills is not the same as devaluing those students for whom it might not be the right path. Not every student is going to enjoy or excel in maths at schools – there are plenty of other ways for them to show their aptitudes.