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Mathematics - A gateway to many career paths

- Wits University

About 70 percent of career paths need mathematics, says Professor Loyiso Nongxa.

While Mathematics is a pre-requisite for many fields of study, the subject’s health in South Africa is troubling, says Professor Loyiso Nongxa, ex Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University.

“Mathematics is a gateway to most career paths. If you are you going to be a medical doctor, engineer and accountant, you need mathematics. About 70 percent of career paths need mathematics,” says Nongxa, who spoke after his inaugural lecture on 10 May 2017, titled: The health of high level mathematics by 2030.

Professor Nongxa’s lecture was dedicated to the late anti-apartheid revolutionary, Oliver Tambo, who, like Nongxa, was not only from the Eastern Cape, but was born in October, attended the University of Fort Hare and also majored in Mathematics. This year marks the centenary of Tambo’s birth date.

According to Nongxa, mathematics can confirm existing inequalities. He reflected on his days as a student at the University of Fort Hare, where maths was not meant for black students because their role in society was manual labour.

“The apartheid system prevented many people of my generation from realising their true potential. Some of the circumstances that we faced 30 to 40 years ago still prevail in the higher education system in South Africa,” says Nongxa.

He made reference to J.N. Le Roux, a National Party politician in 1945 who once said:

“We should not give the Native any academic education. If we do, who is going to do the manual labour in the community."

Today things have changed and it is the role universities to produce internationally acclaimed mathematicians as a means to redress the historical disparities of our past and to create a healthy mathematical state.

“The health and vibrancy of the mathematical and statistical sciences in any society rests with the country’s university sector. Universities teach, train and produce graduates that contribute to both the private and public sectors. Without academics at the cutting edge of global research and teaching techniques, university curricula will not incorporate the latest developments. This will result in poorly trained graduates, and poorly educated scholars,” says Nongxa.

In his lecture, he posed the question: Where will South Africa be in 2030, in terms of high level mathematics?

He said that South Africa is not doing well in high level mathematics (postgraduate) in terms of international standards.

“The number of graduates in Mathematics at postgraduate level is low. The majority of students enrolled for Masters or PhD do not complete. In South Africa, there are less than 40 percent of people who hold PhDs at universities.”

Nongxa added that one of the problems in the system when it comes to mathematics is the lack of qualified teachers and lecturers, and specialisation in the field at a far early stage.

He says that people who are good at mathematics pursue other careers such as medicine, engineering or accountancy, instead of ploughing back their skills and teaching mathematics.

At university level, lecturers do not hold suitable qualifications to be lecturing university students, especially at postgraduate level as there are not many lecturers who hold PhDs in mathematics.

“There are some people teaching with a 4-year degree. What are the implications of that for the health of the discipline. Someone who has just majored with an honours degree is now teaching people at a University. There is a high proportion of people who are teaching without a PhD,” says Nongxa.

He urged other mathematicians at his lecture to make a difference in the field as a means to celebrate the subject and their expertise.