By Roli S
‘Model public universities for holistic and multidisciplinary education, at par with IITs, IIMs, etc., called MERUs (Multidisciplinary Education and Research Universities), will be set up and will aim to attain the highest global standards in quality education. They will also help set the highest standards for multidisciplinary education across India’. This is what the National Education Policy 2020 has accentuated among many other fundamental changes in the education system of India.
Multidisciplinary approach is not at all a new one as it has been followed for a long time in many well-known higher education institutes across the world and even in Indian Institutions like Azim Premji University, Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University, which are all extending to their students flexibility in the choice of discipline. Mix and match of major and minor disciplines is trending in these new age universities.
What makes multidisciplinary students stand out for employers? Is it only about the choice of majorand minor subjects that students choose to study? In fact, many job vacancies do not specify the subject knowledge required for the role; it is the skill that the candidate has developed during the studies as well as the other life experiences that the employers are interested in.
Multidisciplinary students develop a wide range of perspectives and a rich view of the world. Transferable skills, analysis and problem solving, self-management, communication and literacy, synthesis of ideas and flexibility are a few of the skills that a multidisciplinary student gathers during the course of study.
Above everything else, the multidisciplinary approach to learning makes the students problem solvers. The most innovative solutions to local problems demand deep integration of quantitative and emotional insights that are too often segregated between traditional academic disciplines.
Let us take the example of a rainwater harvesting issue. It is an environment related problem, but faculties of arts, science, humanities, and design can work together to provide a long-term solution to this problem which is user friendly and economical. Done correctly, engineering begins and ends with people. Done optimally, tackling our world’s biggest challenges requires a diverse and integrative approach.
The creation of new plays and films alongside the creation of new scientific findings inspires new ways of asking questions, in both arts and science. Ethics, sustainability, questions of identity, equity or social justice, and many other topics when included in the scientist’s or engineer’s design process will help solve serious challenges posed by climate change, environment degradation, population growth and even social unrest around the world.
Enabling students to learn from multiple disciplines is a crucial step taken by the NEP 2020 towards helping them address the big problems facing society. This is particularly important since we cannot predict what the future problems might be.
Problem-based learning is already at the heart of many medical and law degrees. It provides the opportunity to practice broad thinking under real-world situations. Problem based learning also encourages self-directed and explorative learning. This approach could be used more widely to encourage the ability to adapt that students need in the current climate.
For example, students could encounter the common problems faced by a local farmer who is experiencing crop failures, or a small business which is struggling due to the increasing cost of raw materials. The students then research the underlying problems and potential solutions. Both scenarios by and large are related to climate change, but the first might require looking into subjects such as ecology, soil science, engineering and economics. The second scenario might require research on climate forecasting, ecosystem services and business.
Cross-disciplinary problem-based learning experiences in the universities are focused on global challenges such as food security, educational reforms, sustainability, unemployment or even climate change, itself. Assessment is directly built into the new forms of solutions and submissions, reducing the reliance on traditional exams, which have been widely criticised anyway for being a poor test of understanding and usefulness.
Adopting multidisciplinary approaches more comprehensively could help students integrate the many disciplines needed to address global change, and to apply their knowledge to unpredictable situations and the unforeseeable future.
Our education system was designed for a bygone time era and has not been equipping our students with the skills to thrive in the ever-changing world. It is clear now that employers increasingly need staff capable of working in unstructured and irregular situations. A more generous society also needs the same flexibility in this time of great change. Reluctance to change is a common concern, but universities will need to embrace new approaches to educate tomorrow’s society.
This is based on recognition of the fact that while a student may be outstanding at math but may tend to lack the creativity needed to really thrive in the world of work, and to drive economic growth by developing exciting, innovative new products and services. This is why adding arts and humanities subjects to traditional science courses could potentially help students ask more questions, challenge orthodoxy and think outside traditional norms in a really powerful way. Some of the successful new ideas and products coming from technology companies such as Google or Apple, for example, are emerging from an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary culture. The solutions to the world’s grand challenges, such as food security and population control are going to emerge from bringing a diverse range of perspectives together.
That is why having a portfolio of different subjects within a student’s degree profile can be marketed to employers in a very positive light and help him/her ‘stand out’ against other applicants. When a candidate is more adapting and versatile by following very different disciplines successfully, and developing a full range of skills, he/she can be particularly attractive to employers.
(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai)