Does anyone other than Harvard still need a Chemistry professor?
The answer to the question is yes, by the way. But it is a question that is now being asked (and for chemistry you can substitute various other disciplines).
But where does this question come from? Well, at a recent conference on the future of higher education in Madrid, a New York university president, David van Zandt, made the following comment.
‘I apologize to anyone here from Nebraska, but there is no reason to teach introductory chemistry in Nebraska in a classroom with 500 students. Not when you can pump in, say, someone from Harvard to give a video lecture to much smaller groups.’
He is not the first to have suggested something like this. The general thinking goes along these lines. In the age of instant internet connectivity, there is no need to have people in all corners of the world teaching their own versions of the basic academic subjects. Why not stream in lectures and tutorials from leading professors in a small number of key academic hubs? Then the local institution can add its own bit of intellectual property by following the Harvard professor’s lectures with their own more specialist courses. Students would still come to lecture theatres, perhaps, so that they can take part in the social and networking aspects of doing a degree, but their teachers will often be from somewhere else entirely – teachers they will see but probably never meet. So in Nebraska – or Scotland, or Ireland – we might end up with a much smaller number of senior academics providing original teaching, and a lot of teaching and research assistants doing the on-location back-up for the distant professor.
That’s all very well, in theory at any rate, if you believe universities are teaching centres for local students. But if you believe universities also have other fundamental responsibilities in supporting local and regional development – economic, cultural and social – and that they are the foundation for high value investment, then this model makes much less sense.
But it is clear that questions such as this will continue to be asked, and that universities need to develop a robust strategic model for development if they are to prosper in this kind of environment. I cannot answer for Nebraska (though maybe I’ll try to make a connection), but Scotland certainly needs to develop its own local intellectual property at this stage, as does Ireland. The chemistry professor will need to be in situ.
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