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Universities of the future must embrace multi-disciplinary studies

04 November 2022

Shanti Jagannathan :
Universities need to look beyond single-discipline learning and embrace knowledge that cuts across disciplines to resolve some daunting challenges.
Universities have traditionally fostered single-discipline, in-depth knowledge and specialized studies. This is changing. Leading universities are now fusing the boundaries of sectors and disciplines.
While academic and technical depth is still important, interdisciplinary teaching and learning are gaining ground, recognizing that complexities of economic and social issues go beyond the capability of any single discipline.
Not only students, but policymakers, practitioners, and technology leaders, need to develop interdisciplinary skillsets to be "future ready" and to make science work for society.
Multidisciplinary studies do not just mean courses in different disciplines, but curricular approaches that integrate subjects and create fresh know-how relevant for new professional roles. This is done by pairing substantive scientific and technical knowledge imparted through disciplinary studies with knowledge and skills from other domains for their practical and effective applications.
Sustainability studies in leading universities are increasingly embracing such interdisciplinary approaches in re-drawing boundaries across earth sciences, social sciences, engineering, humanities, arts, and business studies.
Let's look at a few recent global examples of this approach being undertaken by educational institutions:
Leiden University launched eight interdisciplinary programs in 2020 to promote collaboration across different faculties with a focus on linking science and technology with society. The study and research programs cover a range of topics that include artificial intelligence, life sciences, health, social resilience and livable planet and sustainable futures.
In 2021, the National University of Singapore brought together the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment to form the College of Design and Engineering to implement interdisciplinary undergraduate education, tapping both fields. Together with the launch of the College of Humanities and Sciences in 2020 this signals the university's efforts to straddle curriculum across disciplines with greater flexibility in learning.
In response to growing population pressure on cities and an urban sprawl causing greater environmental challenges, ETH Zurich and the National University of Singapore have developed an interdisciplinary research collaboration combining engineering, design and social research through the Future Cities Lab Global, which has been in a new phase since 2021.
In 2022, the PolyU Academy for Interdisciplinary Research was launched by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to spur research and innovation in frontier areas such as artificial intelligence, carbon neutrality, deep space exploration, smart cities, and smart energy. It does this by bringing together 16 research institutes and centers of high repute for cross-disciplinary research to tackle climate change, energy shortages and other challenges.
Australia's Multiversity university alliance initiated in 2021, fosters education and research excellence collectively across five partner universities to offer industry-relevant and employment-focused education and training. Teaching and research will span several science and technology disciplines, including engineering, aerospace, advanced manufacturing and defense.
These developments signal major transformations in higher education and training that link different branches of study and in making them relevant to contemporary society and economy.
Organizations, governments, corporations and universities have been largely structured across well-defined boundaries. While there are obvious benefits from deep specialization, cross-fertilization across silos of disciplines is growing in importance.
This is also crucial for the future progress of science in its role as a transversal aggregator to solve humankind's problems.
But what does it mean for universities in the Asia and the Pacific as they re-boot and re-imagine their education offerings to carve out a place on the global map?
Multidisciplinary studies do not just mean courses in different disciplines, but curricular approaches that integrate subjects and create fresh know-how relevant for new professional roles.
Here are five suggestions:
First, multi-disciplinary studies and research are critical to make education and training relevant to the most pressing development challenges. Tertiary institutions need to become far more flexible and agile in bundling courses across disciplines and develop appropriate credentials.
Second, multi-disciplinary studies require a broadening and integration of curricula from different sectors into a coherent common curriculum.  Disciplinary depth and rigor are necessary but not sufficient in forging the intellectual foundations for future studies.
Third, universities have a crucial role in developing skills and talent pools needed for climate action and need to re-draw boundaries across disciplines of science, engineering, management and finance.
Fourth, universities need to develop the intellectual firepower to address specific challenges such as food security, energy security, aging societies, renewable and green energy, and health care.
Fifth, universities need to claim their strategic place in economies and societies as purveyors of knowledge but also as thriving hubs that incubate innovation. Behavioral economics, public administration and other non-technological disciplines are equally important in blending the practical know-how to translate scientific possibilities into reality and have them accepted by society.
To solve problems of the present and future, we need education that cuts across physical, digital and biological worlds.
(The writer is Principal Education Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department, ADB).

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