Structures and labels are important for bringing order to confusion, providing a sense of direction and purpose. But they can lose their value as the world changes around them. In a world where interdisciplinary research is of growing importance, dividing universities by academic departments creates barriers not benefits.
As academics, we’re used to departments. We cling to them for our sense of identity. They provide stability as a store of resources and a physical home. But these monolithic structures are blocking the next phase in the evolution of universities.
Departments make it harder for academics to push boundaries as they struggle to find new intellectual homes for ideas that don’t fit neatly into disciplinary boxes. Students lose out too: poorly managed course development across disciplines can lead to a joint degree that is two mealy halves joined together rather than a seamless matrix of ideas and challenges.
Inter-departmental rivalries have also long been recognised as a problem for higher education management. Rigid departments and administrative systems can be a drag on efforts to innovate. They are the basis of division rather than collaboration, engendering disputes over resourcing and financing. They introduce barriers between teaching and research activities, leading to hostility and sometimes predatory competition.
The result can be unbalanced levels of financial subsidy between departments. This was revealed in a survey of the higher education workplace in 2014, where academics flagged how different subject areas were valued and supported as a key issue – particularly the gap between Stem subjects and the arts.
Designing courses that are cross-disciplinary, where one discipline learns from the perspective of another, or interdisciplinary, where the disciplines are integrated, allows for more context-specific programmes that better suit industry and prepare students for jobs, opening doors rather than closing them. It benefits academics too, since research councils now rarely fund research in a single discipline. They’re looking for the broader view and sharper insights that come from the intersection between multiple disciplines that defines new territory – and so should universities.
The higher education sector needs to find new structures that demonstrate we’re set up in the most effective ways to wrestle with real problems. While cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary research centres are common, they tend to be offshoots of departments. In the US, there has been a shift towards more flexible structures, with staff free to move between interdisciplinary centres. There are not enough of these in the UK. Universities can take inspiration from the University of Essex, which has an Interdisciplinary Studies Centre where students can choose modules from across humanities and social sciences subjects and work with staff from different departments.
At Bradford University’s faculty of management and law we’re following these initiatives. We’re removing departmental divisions and restructuring ourselves around research. Under this approach, research centres – based around interdisciplinary expertise and collaborations – administer taught courses, using research to inform course creation and delivery. The structure is intended to encourage cooperation between staff and students, strengthen the ties between teaching and research activities, and turn collaborative, interdisciplinary working into the norm.
Open, flexible boundaries are likely to become increasingly important for academics and students, as emphasis within universities shifts from structure to cooperation. Everyone is set to benefit: researchers will receive wider input, ideas and energy, teaching staff will no longer feel excluded from higher-status activities, and students will gain experience and skills from being part of live projects. Freed from departmental traditions, higher education will spring into new life.