A new report published by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) has found that officials in UK universities are being forced to "dumb down" standards of math because of the amount of students who say that the work is too difficult.
Many institutions are "marginalizing the mathematical content" of degree courses amid fears that English students are incapable of the most basic sums, the report said, writes Graeme Paton at the Telegraph.
Researchers from the RSA say that the knock on effect is also damaging ability in many subjects that require good levels of numeracy, like the social sciences, medicine and psychology.
The report said that universities are failing to "advertise the level of math needed to comfortably study particular subjects for fear of hindering applications".
"Universities are marginalizing mathematical content in the delivery of degree courses because English students are not capable of studying it. For instance, in the social sciences, quantitative research methods may be neglected.
"It also means English universities are not keeping pace with international standards. It is common amongst universities overseas to require advanced mathematics qualifications prior to being accepted onto relevant degree programs.
"In an increasingly international market, the failure to develop quantitative skills and content adequately has the potential to damage the standing of some English degrees amongst international students and to disadvantage English graduates in the global marketplace."
The researchers call for making math compulsory up to age 18 and creating a two-stage math qualification at GCSE level: one for more advanced students and the other promoting practical numeracy skills.
Emma Norris, RSA associate director, said:
"With nearly 50 per cent of our students failing to achieve GCSE mathematics, long term reform should be an urgent priority for ministers.
"English students would benefit from math education that's flexible to learner needs, rather than the regimented exam – driven approach that currently characterizes England's mathematics qualifications."
And in response to the numbers, Professor Sparks, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), said that the damning statistic "puts us at a real anomaly internationally and likely affects our economic competitiveness".
Sparks has called for more students to study math up to the age of 18. He has also called for more tailored courses "between a GCSE and A-level" for those students who need them.
"The reason some people are being put off math is related to that issue of teaching to the test," he said.
"Schools are given a big incentive to make sure pupils pass tests, which doesn't necessarily mean that they get the well-rounded understanding that a good education requires."