When we think about completing an undergraduate university qualification, we tend to focus on specific fields of study like mathematics, computer science or history.
Yet, increasingly, university leaders are considering whether such programs are becoming too narrow in their approach and fail to respond to student interests, industry demands and global challenges.
Inter-disciplinary studies are therefore set to become a much more prominent feature of the university landscape.
We have all become familiar with the term “hybrid” and the benefits such arrangements can deliver.
In the context of our working lives, hybrid means splitting time between the office and a remote location.
In the automotive industry, a hybrid vehicle seamlessly combines the power of petrol engines with the efficiency of electric motors.
An inter-disciplinary studies degree is the hybrid of university study and brings together distinct subject areas in a single degree.
In a sense, there is nothing new about these types of degrees. Universities have for some time offered double and even triple majors that combine disciplines.
A student completing a major in environmental science with a second major in screen production will be well prepared to become a documentary filmmaker for science and nature productions.
Another studying business subjects and Bahasa Indonesia will enrich the chance of becoming a successful Asian business specialist.
Business schools, too, have recognised the strength of this approach by acknowledging that a curriculum based solely on traditional subjects, such as accountancy, finance, management, marketing and communications, is limiting.
These schools are re-writing the curriculum to embrace a more inter-disciplinary approach that reflects societal trends such as climate change, electronic data interchange and health and wellbeing.
They are drawing on subjects like health, environmental and behavioural sciences along the way. Historically, these subjects would not have featured in business education.
Some universities are taking this approach to the next level, amid calls to replace our traditional discipline-based degree structures with qualifications modelled around global challenges.
According to Tony Chan, an academic presenting at the recent Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress in Glasgow, universities should consider restructuring their academic offerings around the United Nation’s sustainability development goals (SDGs).
Dr Chan told the conference that “when I was younger students would say ‘I want to study mathematics or science’.
“Today, students are much more interested in studying sustainability and are much more motivated by SDGs,” he said.
SDGs include areas such as no-poverty, zero-hunger; good health and wellbeing; quality education; gender equality; affordable and clean energy; decent work and economic growth; industry, innovation and infrastructure; reduced inequalities; sustainable cities and communities; climate action; life below water; life on land; and peace, justice and strong institutions.
Brunel University is an example of one institution that has already moved to remodel some of its offerings around global challenges.
The university in London has launched four global challenges degrees: global innovation; planetary health; security; and social cohesion, all of which combine science and non-scientific subjects.
The university says a global challenges degree is both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science.
Brunel claims that by having developed skills in both scientific and non-scientific fields, its graduates “will be able to confidently engage with a range of perspectives, viewpoints and stakeholders”.
Students also have an opportunity to learn a second or third language while studying to enrich their global capabilities.
The university says graduates of programs will be suited for roles in many industries, including business and consulting, healthcare and government and diplomatic services.
According to Brunel’s website, students who complete global challenges degrees will be able to “actively contribute and lead the necessary change needed to respond to emerging issues”.
The Brunel model offers food for thought for Australian universities as our institutions seek to transform their offering and delivery modes following the damaging impact of the pandemic.
Yet, we are unlikely to see universities shift completely from degrees that focus on single disciplines.
Traditional qualifications like a degree in mathematics, chemistry or marketing will always be required to provide depth of expertise as opposed to the broader perspective provided by programs that have breadth across discipline areas.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA