Interdisciplinary push: Liberating higher education from excessive specialisation

NIRF rankings, education
Government-funded institutions continue to dominate NIRF rankings, highlighting the need to increase public expenditure on such institutions.

Higher education institutions in India are about to undergo a transformation. A committee chaired by Prof RP Tiwari, vice-chancellor of the Central University of Punjab, has submitted its report, Guidelines for Transforming Higher Educational Institutions into Multidisciplinary Institutions. The committee set up by the University Grants Commission looks to transform single-stream institutions into large multidisciplinary universities and autonomous degree-awarding higher education institutions.

It also looks to strengthen institutional infrastructure necessary for multidisciplinary education and research. In a selectively vague manner, the guidelines entail collaboration among HEIs, merger of single stream institutions with multi-disciplinary institutions and adding further subject departments that might be required for a multidisciplinary institution. This article discusses the basic fundamentals that these guidelines fail to address and some conceptual issues inherent in the guidelines.

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Students side of the story

The guidelines focus on the institutional side of the transformation. It is less important to highlight that recently the market for higher education institutions has been severely affected by Covid-19. The two major setbacks that students suffered are the increased cost of higher education and low number of job opportunities in the country. In tackling these, the guidelines miss the need for cost minimisation on the part of students.

Marymount University, which is well-known for bringing innovative solutions to higher education, introduced inter-disciplinary departments after Covid-19 in the line with the report presented by the UGC. The major mismatch here is that the earlier mentioned programme objectively reduced overhead costs burden on students by 50%.

The increasing cost of higher education in India, with consistent underutilisation of higher education funds along with a very low student-to-teacher ratio in higher education institutions in India and continued struggle for student fellowships, evidently questions the need for such transformation with absolutely ignored students’ side that can only bring burden to the infrastructure and workforce.

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Higher education and super specialisation

Academic disciplines have been defined in several ways. “With its own theories, methods and content … distinctiveness being recognised institutionally by the existence of distinct departments, chairs, courses and so on,” Squires (1992) defines academic disciplines. The same has also been defined as “a branch of learning or scholarly instruction” (OED).

Against this disciplinarity, which describes academic disciplines as autonomous and discrete areas of study which do not normally cooperate or coordinate their academic efforts across disciplinary boundaries, the newer terms like interdisciplinary, pluridisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary have come into play.

While used equivocally (like in the mentioned report by UGC) these terms define and describe the specific nature of collaboration across disciplines. The report on the multidisciplinary transformation of higher education institutions in India equivocally used the term of interdisciplinarity eight times which has the following conceptual issues.

While interdisciplinarity has been established as “a remedy to the intellectually deadening effects of excessive specialization”, against this notion, in multidisciplinarity, there are many discrete and autonomous disciplines, which actually entertain specialisation. This creates questions on the presence of these contrasting academic mechanisms in HEIs as the report writes, “HEIs also should have innovative programmes of a multi- and interdisciplinary nature to help widen learners’ thinking and learning capability and train them to address emerging challenges.”

This vagueness in the objective shall result in a defective implementation that will make the students suffer only. Thus, more objectivity is demanded from the guidelines so that institutions can actually implement and bear the fruits of it.

Lastly, in ancient times also the Indian Knowledge System had theories and disciplines termed as Sutra Sangati, Padha Sangati and Adyaya Sangati with a strong connection among concepts. Lately, India signed the SDG which was postulated by the United Nations (UN). To enable tackling the 17 SDGs, each of which demands complex interdisciplinary solutions, the need for interdisciplinary nature of research is needed. Yet addressal of the major issues of finance, endowment, and infrastructure is quite essential before bringing in such structural transformations.

(Kaibalyapati Mishra is a research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Policy, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Views are personal.)