< Previous page ^ Table of Contents Next page >

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 12 October 1999. A Discussion was held in the Council Room of the following Reports:

The Joint Report of the Council and the General Board, dated 26 July and 21 July 1999, on the implementation in Cambridge of the 1999 pay increase for non-clinical academic and academic-related staff (Reporter, 1998-99, p. 920).

The Report of the General Board, dated 21 July 1999, on the establishment of Professorships of Linguistics, Psychology in the Social Sciences, and Plant Ecology (Reporter 1998-99, p. 925).

The remarks made on these Reports will be published in a subsequent issue of the Reporter.

The Report of the Strategic Committee for the Natural Sciences Tripos, dated 30 June 1999, on Mathematics in Part IA of the Tripos (Reporter, 1998-99, p. 927).


Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Review Committee for the Natural Sciences Tripos was appointed in the Easter Term 1996, with Professor Roger Needham as Chairman. Submissions were invited by 31 October, and the Committee began work in November 1996. They delivered their Report to the General Board in November 1997. As noted in the present Report, that Report was published in January 1998. Unfortunately, it was not referred to the Regent House for discussion. I appreciate that extensive consideration of the Report has taken place behind the scenes, and that there are many details to settle in order to give effect to it. The present Discussion provides a welcome opportunity for me to say that the Report was an excellent one, about which I have no reservations. Professor Needham and his colleagues should be publicly (if belatedly) thanked for their wise and prompt work.

I realise that the Natural Sciences Tripos could be likened to a super-tanker which cannot change course quickly. But nearly two years have elapsed since the Review Committee delivered their Report and only now are we beginning to get proposals. In the present Report of the Strategic Committee these are announced as being 'urgent', but given the rate at which changes are taking place in school curricula, everything should be designated as 'urgent'. Perhaps it's just as well that the Strategic Committee have selected the particular point about Mathematics being compulsory in Part IA, noting that the Editors of the Undergraduate Prospectus for 2000-01 have, on p. 74, already pre-empted the Regent House's decision in the matter!

Besides trying to press for a sense of urgency today, I would like also to comment on section 4 of the Strategic Committee's Report. This concerns the responsibility for the teaching of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences Tripos. The suggestion made there is contrary to the recommendations of the Review Committee. Actually it appears to be a piece of kite-flying since no recommendations are yet made. I make no comments as regards Mathematics teaching for the Biological students. But for the Physical Sciences this is a kite that has flown before and always encountered stormy weather! The suggestion has always been opposed by the Faculty of Mathematics because we believe that we do it better, and I don't suppose we have recently changed that view.

Mr D. DYE:

Mr Deputy-Vice-Chancellor, I welcome the Report of the Committee, and would support the idea that candidates be required to offer Mathematics in the first year of the Tripos.

However, the poor performance of Natural Scientists in Part IA cannot, I believe, be attributed purely to the incentive structure of the current system and I would like to take this opportunity to make some suggestions as to how Part IA might be organized with a view to improving the performance of candidates in Mathematics.

No-one who has lectured or attended lectures at 9 a.m. on a Saturday can have failed to notice that attendance is significantly lower on this day than a normal weekday. Therefore it would seem to make sense to move these lecture series to a Monday-Wednesday-Friday slot that is later in the morning. I appreciate that this may make the timing of practicals more difficult, but if we really believe Maths to be important, it is a step that we should take, and could take speedily without having to amend any regulations.

Many graduates of the Tripos confess to having de-prioritized the subject in their first year, and subsequently found either during Parts IB and II, or during their research career, that they had to relearn or learn material at a high personal cost. Therefore the goal should be to emphasize that the material studied in IA Mathematics is relevant, and to maximize the chance that students will study it. The Committee, in their Report, suggest that the Faculty Boards re-examine the material in IA Mathematics. It should be possible, especially within the Physical Sciences, to rearrange the IA and IB courses so that some of the ideas in IA Mathematics are used later in the same year in one of the other experimental sciences. The use in the Mathematics example sheets of more physical examples might also help with this goal of emphasizing to students that this material is important and that familiarity with it will eventually be essential.

Finally I would also suggest that the exams in IA Mathematics be placed differently; their current position as the last of the summer examinations does not increase the likelihood of performance by students, many of whom only turn up for just the first half hour as they are compelled to do. If the Mathematics exams were placed before students' last 'real' exam (and this is how they are treated by the students), then performance might be better.

In April this year I was confronted with having to teach basic matrix inversion to Part II Materials Scientists, who had managed to avoid it both earlier in Part II and in Part IA Mathematics. The only student who knew the material had done it at A level. Even if Mathematics were compulsory, this material, which is vital to most Physical Sciences, would normally be ignored since it is taught at the end of the course. Also, since Mathematics is manifestly not most scientists' first motivation, it should be clear that the Tripos should be organized to maximize the likelihood of student participation. I hope these suggestions find some merit with the Committee.

No remarks were made on the following Reports:

The Report of the General Board, dated 21 July 1999, on the establishment of a Professorship of Primary Education and a Professorship of Educational Leadership (Reporter, 1998-99, p. 923).

The Report of the General Board, dated 21 July 1999, on the establishment of a Professorship of Stroke Medicine (Reporter, 1998-99, p. 924).

The Report of the General Board, dated 21 July 1999, on the re-establishment of the Professorship of Anaesthesia (Reporter, 1998-99, p. 926).

< Previous page ^ Table of Contents Next page >

Cambridge University Reporter, 27 October 1999
Copyright © 1999 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.