ONE of the world's most famous academics has attacked proposals by a leading Scottish university to cut courses.
Noam Chomsky, known as the father of modern linguistics and a renowned political activist, said plans by Strathclyde University to cut music, geography, community education and sociology were “very odd”.
The intervention came on the day a student protest against the cuts was marred by two arrests as police scuffled with demonstrators outside the university’s main building.
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Mr Chomsky’s comments are particularly embarrassing because he is currently Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -- one of the world’s most successful private research universities.
And professor Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde, has said his vision for the university is to turn it into an “MIT on the Clyde”.
Mr Chomsky told The Herald: “If that is, indeed, the goal, it is a very odd one.
“When I arrived in the 1950s, MIT was primarily an engineering school, and even the physics and mathematics departments were largely service programmes for engineers. By the 1960s that had changed radically. One consequence was very considerable enrichment of the academic programmes in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts.
“It was also recognised that education of scientists and engineers is severely flawed if they are not well prepared to comprehend the role and impact of technology in the broader society. The fine social science departments, in which many students major, make a substantial contribution to this end.
“Hence,” he added, “if the goal is to turn Strathclyde into the MIT of Scotland by curtailing programmes in the social sciences, it is the MIT of half-a-century ago that is envisioned, if even that.”
Mr Chomsky said he felt that throughout much of the western world a “sharp attack” on higher education was under way with restrictions to departments and the closure of academic programmes.
“I cannot comment on individual cases without knowing the circumstances, but in the cases I have investigated, the economic motives offered seem dubious at best, and other considerations, not very attractive ones, appear to be involved,” he added.
Last night, the university mounted a strong defence of its strategy, insisting none of its plans would damage Strathclyde’s commitment to the delivery of social sciences as a “critical part of our strategy”.
A spokeswoman said: “Over the period 2010-12 we will have made major investments in our faculty of humanities and social sciences through 18 academic appointments and new accommodation spend for the faculty of around £25 million.
“This faculty is the largest in the university and it will continue to deliver high-quality education and research in a range of disciplines including law, government and public policy, English, history, languages, social work, teacher education and psychological sciences and health.
“Our provision of sociology teaching is being reshaped and we are excited about the opportunity that will bring to broaden the education and understanding of our students in engineering, sciences and business, as well as those studying on our BA programmes.”
The spokeswoman said the university agreed with Mr Chomsky’s view that an international technological university should ensure its students were well-prepared to understand the role and impact of technology in the broader society.
“This is exactly what we are striving to achieve and we recognise MIT’s exemplary achievements in that area,” she added. “Our recent successes in attracting major support and investment in our strategic activities are testimony to the recognition that we are producing exactly the sort of graduates that such ambitions produce.”
The Herald revealed earlier this month that Strathclyde’s plans to axe courses in music, education, geography and sociology could cost up to 25 jobs from the faculty of humanities and social sciences.
Strathclyde said the subjects were underperforming in research, were not financially viable and were no longer core to its strategy of becoming a leading European technological university. However, there has been a backlash from staff and students who argue the cuts are short-sighted and risk the future of the university as a broad-based institution.