Universities must be prepared to sack or downgrade lecturers who stand in the way of improving teaching and learning, European university heads have said.
They will have to face the prospect of employing fewer academics in traditional lecturing roles as part of a move towards more student-centred learning and increasing use of information technology, warned some delegates at the 50th biannual meeting of the Conference of European Rectors in London last week.
New learning models designed to better prepare graduates for work may involve lecturers more in guiding students in tackling problems and self-study, with IT back-up. Technology may also allow students to see "star" lecturers in other countries.
Frans van Vught, rector of the Netherlands' University of Twente, suggested that such changes would require institutions to rethink their use of staff. "What should be the percentage of professors we fire to allow students to find really good teachers on the world wide web?" Later he added: "If students want an interesting lecture, probably someone at Harvard or Yale would be better than one at their own university. These lecturers will have to become instructors assisting students in learning."
Others were less impressed with the "problem-based" learning model, which the University of Maastricht has adopted. This involves students tackling problems through tutorial groups, setting learning in a more work-based context. Students also study with the aid of IT and other facilities.
Lesley Wilson, director of UNESCO's European Centre for Higher Education, said such a model could not be applied universally. "Elsewhere in Europe, institutions do not have the infrastructure to support this," she said.
David Roberts, head of academic promotion at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "I think even in Western Europe these ideas are taking off more slowly than many people think."