How much maths do first years need?

A government-funded project investigating first year mathematics programs in Australian universities is calling for better clarity about how much maths students require to successfully undertake and complete degrees.

For several months, the FYiMaths project has been in consultation with staff from science, technology engineering and maths faculties across the country, to investigate widespread reports that students are entering universities with well below the minimum maths standard required to complete coursework.

As a result, large numbers of first year students are unable to cope with their studies across many disciplines and cash strapped universities are unable to provide remedial classes to help them catch up.

One of the major causes for this shortfall identified by the FYi Maths project is that students often misunderstand or ignore the entry requirements for mathematics at many of Australia’s universities. Many are commencing their university careers underprepared for their chosen fields of study, causing stress to themselves and their lecturers.

FYiMaths argues that the current practice for a significant number of universities to state mathematical requirements for entry to degree programs including science and engineering, as ‘assumed knowledge’ is contributing to the problem.

Academics are now calling on the Minister for Education and Universities Australia to review the information provided by universities to prospective students about the mathematics background they need to study a wide range of degree programs.

Over 140 academics and education specialists met in Sydney earlier this year at a National Forum to discuss how ‘assumed knowledge’ entry standards are impacting on students studying degree programs including science, engineering, mathematics and technology.

A big part of the problem is that students make strategic choices in year 12 to maximise their ATAR; they commonly choose either no maths, or lower level maths subjects than they should, because the ‘assumed knowledge’ information is unclear. The academics argue that students, their teachers and parents must understand the consequences that these choices may have on their future study.

communique from Forum participants has urged the Minister to investigate the current information provided by universities to prospective students, with a view to making the expected mathematical knowledge statements sufficiently clear for students to be able to decide if they meet the expectations. The communique also wants students to be clearly informed about the consequences of not being able to keep up with coursework due to having insufficient maths proficiency.
One of the Forum organisers, Dr Deb King, said that the use of the term ‘assumed knowledge’ is ambiguous

“Students do not understand what it means.” she said. “It is our responsibility to ensure that the messages and information we give prospective students about the background knowledge required for their degree programs is clear and accurate.”


The FYiMaths project team has interviewed mathematicians from over 25 institutions and found that universities expend significant resources teaching secondary school level mathematics to their underprepared students. Project findings show that clearer message should be provided to students about the importance of their final years at school in preparing them for university study.

Find out more about FYiMaths