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Friday, March 4, 2011

The flexible inflexible university or The Open University

I will try to explain what I mean by the title of this post. "The flexible inflexible university or The Open University." In my perception a university should be a bridge to the state-of-the-art knowledge of a certain field. It maybe impossible to actually deliver the knowledge in the form of a B.Sc. or M.Sc. degree but then at least the student should leave with an up-to-date map to the frontiers of the field. Some sciences are so big, i.e. mathematics or expensive to research, i.e. ( particle ) physics that it would be unreasonable to expect of a single university to be that bridge. But in cases like that the university should be part of a cluster in any form as long as it is clear to their students.

Let me jump right into an example. Random matrix theory. It is not possible to study this topic at the Open University. It is not in the B.Sc. program nor in the M.Sc. program. Random matrix theory seems to be some inter-mathematical-discipline of probability and linear algebra. One could say, that it is -thus- covered in the Open University program. The issue is that it seems to be an area of interest and research. Actively used in engineering, finance and physics. Think of calculating the eigenvalues of 1000,000,000 x 1,000,000,000 matrices.

The flexible side of the Open University is well known, I don't have to deliver any arguments for that. The inflexible side has to do with the long lead time between course design, course development and development pay-back time which may be a cycle of at least 10 years. What is 10 years in mathematics you might ask? Ten years is always the same ten years. Engineering and finance develop at ever faster rates and they are extremely tool ( mathematics ) hungry. Universities where professors have direct links to society through contract research with large corporations for example can and will react sooner to those needs. And thus set an agenda for research. - There are more reasons like professors shopping for Ph.D. students for their own research that give brick universities an advantage over the OU.

A rather old document ( 2006 ) on random matrix theory which I found while 'stumbling'.


  1. here is anothter good resource for random matrix theory. its from terrence tao's excellent blog

  2. Thanks,
    Yes. Terence is the man. He contributed to the Princeton companion as well.


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(Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion, colloquially aka Raumpatrouille Orion was the first German science fiction television series. Its seven episodes were broadcast by ARD beginning September 17, 1966. The series has since acquired cult status in Germany. Broadcast six years before Star Trek first aired in West Germany (in 1972), it became a huge success.)