By 2040, there will be more than 300 vacancies for mathematics academics in higher education in South Africa (SA).

This is the alarm bell sounded by renowned mathematician, Prof Loyiso Nongxa, of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) at a NITheCS colloquium held recently at Stellenbosch University (SU). Nongxa’s presentation considered the South African research landscape in 20 years’ time, looking through the lens of the profile of early career mathematical scientists.

Not only are there likely to be too few mathematics academics, but the dearth of women in related fields is also a concern. SA is struggling to produce A-rated mathematics researchers, especially women researchers, said Nongxa. Only one woman has obtained an A-rating from the National Research Foundation since 1983. “Little will change in higher education’s mathematical sciences landscape unless more is done to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Nongxa, who for the past few years has been involved in the National Graduate Academy for Mathematical and Statistic Sciences, which focuses on the development of SA’s next generation of mathematicians and statisticians, said, “What we do now (in higher education), will have an impact on what mathematics will look like in 2050.”

Referring to data from the 2023 Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology Report, Nongxa said that in 2020, there were 528 mathematics academics, of which 61% had a doctoral qualification. Of all the academics, just under a third were women and more than 60% were over the age of 50.

“Unless we take deliberate steps to transform the current knowledge base, this situation, by 2050, will be the same.” The objective is to have 75% of mathematical academics at doctoral level within the next five years, he said. However, there is concern that most of the current academics in this field will have retired by then.

“We need to find innovative ways to fill these vacancies and attract younger researchers. This includes creating an academic environment that encourages collaboration and not competition.”

He pointed out that in the absence of a national strategy for mathematical sciences, the situation would remain the same. “Mathematical sciences provide the fundamental languages for computational simulation and data analysis.” They are the key drivers of computing and big data, he added.

Prof Francesco Petruccione from SU’s School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, and interim director of the NITheCS, said one way of enticing more students to the mathematical research fields would be to show how these subjects could help with issues such as climate change.

Furthermore, graduates not intent on pursuing post-graduate degrees in mathematical sciences should be encouraged to contribute to the Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) colleges and high schools through teaching/tutoring to meet the growing demand for qualified high school teachers, said Nongxa.

The solution should start even sooner, in high school, with interventions to enable more people to complete matric with the qualifications they need to enrol for mathematical-based degrees, he added. “Currently, about 23% of people who write Grade 12 cannot get over 50% for maths.”

Role models and mentors
Commenting afterwards on the disparate representation of women in mathematical sciences Prof Karin-Therese Howell of SU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences, said role models and mentors are central to attracting more female learners and supporting female academics. “A few initiatives in this direction are already underway. The African Women in Mathematics (AWiM) conferences and seminars hosted by SU aim to connect female mathematicians locally and abroad and provide a platform to share their research.”

AWiM contributed isiXhosa and Afrikaans versions of posters depicting the history of women in mathematics as part of an initiative of the European Women in Mathematics Society. In December 2022, the South African Mathematical Society (SAMS) voted in favour of the establishment of a Women in Mathematics Division. It will be launched later this year, she said.

The STEM MentHER programme, founded by Dr Cerene Rathilal, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)’s Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, links female learners in Grade 12 with an interest in mathematics to mentors in STEM. The programme, co-ordinated at SU by Mathematics lecturer Dr Ronalda Benjamin, in collaboration with Dr Lungile Sitole from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Dr Yaseera Ismail from UKZN, offers ongoing mentorship to these students to help bridge the school-university gap.

To make mathematics more broadly appealing, Dr Sophie Marques, a senior lecturer in Mathematics at SU, founded Wisaarkhu, a magazine that connects a dynamic global community committed to reshaping the image of mathematics. “We are on a transformative journey of discovery and taping into the boundless possibilities that mathematics holds. This transformative shift requires us to learn from various disciplines, generations, and cultures, fostering conversations that offer diverse perspectives. Our magazine serves as a platform to immortalise these paradigm-shifting ideas, combining them with art and poetry in themed volumes.”

In her oversight role, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Prof Sibusiso Moyo, who is also a mathematician and a member of the NGA Mathematics Academic Committee chaired by Prof David Holgate, said that SU, through the Faculty of Science and the Department of Mathematical Sciences, is committed to ensuring that the University continues to promote the Mathematical Sciences and recruiting of candidates for master’s and doctoral programmes.

“We have positioned ourselves through NITheCS, our association with AIMS (African Institute of Mathematical Sciences) and the collaborations with the Centre of Excellence – MASS (Mathematical and Statistical Sciences) to contribute to skills training. The value proposition and clear career pathing and opportunities for contributing to various industries is critical in attracting first generation graduates to postgraduate studies especially those from under-represented communities.”

This media release was issued by Stellenbosch University on 18 July 2023.