Studying Mathematics in the United Kingdom
The study of mathematics in UK universities has a very long history dating back over 500 years to the Middle Ages, starting at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Of course, the landscape has changed immeasurably over that time and nowadays more than 70 universities in the UK offer undergraduate mathematics courses. In 2014/15 there were about 35,000 students studying for a first degree in mathematics (including statistics) and a further 6,000 postgraduate students.
The strength of UK mathematics is fundamentally linked to the quality of the academic staff that universities employ. Mathematics staff in the UK come from across the globe and help to ensure that the environment within university mathematics departments is culturally diverse and inclusive. A large proportion of these staff are engaged in mathematics research and this is another strength of the UK. An International Review of Mathematics Research conducted in 2010 concluded that “UK mathematical sciences research is world-leading in some fields, outstanding in many others and strong overall”. If you study in the UK, you are likely to be taught by some of the best mathematicians in the world.
The most popular type of undergraduate course lasts 3 years and leads to a BSc degree, but there are other options. For those who aspire to a career in mathematics research, or people who simply want to study mathematics in more depth, many UK universities offer the option of a 4-year MMath degree programme. Alternatively, you may wish to spend a year out during your studies working in industry or the commercial sector to gain valuable additional experience; about 40 universities in the UK provide the option of studying mathematics with an industrial placement year. It is also possible to study mathematics together with another subject – popular choices are computer science and economics – but there are many other possible combinations.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that studying mathematics at university is rather different to the experience of mathematics that you get at high school. Mathematics is a language that helps us describe all sorts of abstract concepts that underpin science and engineering. Sometimes we study these concepts as entities in their own right and see where that leads – and history has taught us that this can produce some startling discoveries that turn out to have profound implications. This involves learning how to construct rigorous arguments that constitute a mathematical proof. On the other hand, sometimes we investigate mathematical ideas through particular domains of application, in which case it is often the interpretation of the answer that is the real challenge. In many cases the link between mathematical theory and real-world applications is through computation and mathematics students at UK universities are likely to gain considerable computational experience. Mathematics is a hugely rich subject and as a student you will get to focus, particularly in later years, on those parts of the subject that most appeal to you.
Mathematics graduates are in demand and that demand is increasing. Between 2011 and 2013 the number of people working in jobs where mathematical qualifications are essential rose by a staggering 20%. After finishing a mathematics degree, the world is your oyster. The skills that you will have learned are useful in just about any career you can think of, from accountancy to scientific research, and jobs that mathematics graduates do command healthy salaries. The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications hosts the Maths Careers website (http://www.ima.org.uk/careers/maths_careers.cfm.html) which provides a wealth of information for people of all ages on the opportunities available to those who have studied mathematics.
So, for all sorts of reasons, choosing to study mathematics at university is eminently sensible. It keeps your options open and allows you to choose at a later date from a wide variety of attractive career options. But the most important factor that should influence your choice of what to study at university is whether you enjoy the subject. Nothing will enhance the experience you have as a student as much as the enthusiasm you have for the subject you choose to study. I had a passion for mathematics when at school and chose to pursue that at university. I have no doubt that I made the right choice!
Professor Chris Linton
President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications
Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Loughborough University