A New Kind Of University

I’ve written previously about interdisciplinary mindsets so was interested to read about a new breed of university in The Times (paywall unfortunately).

I’m a product of the UK educational system; A levels at grammar school, university degree via maths/physics modules and then a doctorate in high energy physics. This lead on to further academic research and later transitioning to government and then commercial research management. I developed tools during the first phase of my career that were primarily technical (although international collaboration was also a strong feature). Moving to the other sectors, softer skills became increasingly important mixed with an awareness of (rather than detailed knowledge of) rapidly developing technologies. More and more a big picture outlook was required but I always had the feeling that I was looking at the world through a much narrower ex-physicist’s eyes.

How would it be different if one started with a big picture outlook, emphasising connections to different disciplines? This seems to be the idea behind The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS).

The development of a new kind of university was possible due to the widening of the legislation that allows institutions to award their own degrees. The political motivation for this change was the thought that the current university system was too confining and even acted like a ‘cartel’.

One aim of this new breed of university is to break down the barriers between the arts and sciences and to move away from the model of (often) large class sizes and relatively low staff contact time. Another radical departure is how they choose applicants (traditionally it has been through exam grades plus interviews). Now they can drop the customary A level requirements and rely instead on two very detailed interviews (allowing a much better understanding of backgrounds). This approach benefits students who come from deprived circumstances and may not have strong or even any A levels. However they may have a strong motivation and drive to help improve inequality for example.

The problems/topics addressed in the courses seem very challenging; climate change, inequality, sustainability and so on where a multidisciplinary approach is essential. I guess this means seeing the ‘problem’ from many different points of view and using a broad mixture of techniques to address/improve it. To this end, students learn qualitative and quantitative techniques such as survey design, statistical analysis and coding.

It sounds an interesting experiment. It reminds me of this quote:

“Requirements are actually Hypotheses and your Projects are really just Experiments. Realizing this should be liberating.” – David Bland

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