It seems unlikely that the student choice agenda will go anywhere in the next decade, but our students also increasingly recognise that the world they enter upon graduation will reward adaptability, flexible intellect, and a willingness to see beyond the traditionally-conceived boundaries of their subjects. The divided academy, in which the majority of students and staff stay safely inside their pigeonholes, is offensive to the original conception of the university (universitas, ‘the whole, entire number, the sum of things’) and has robustly failed either to address the major challenges of the twenty-first century or to convince the public of its potential to do so. Joint Honours programmes and MOMDs are an early acknowledgment of this; our excellent Liberal Arts and Sciences programme is a more recent response. By 2026, though, when the sector has endured another decade of defunding, privatisation, and media vilification, even ‘pure’ Single Honours students will demand more versatility: they will need it to find work, they will need it to find satisfaction (in both the intellectual and consumer sense), and they will need it to tackle the considerable social, environmental, and political problems which we are planning to leave for them.
Despite repeated high-profile mentions in job ads and degree prospectuses, though, genuine interdisciplinarity is neither truly desired nor truly deliverable under the current system – there are serious doubts that it is possible at all, and even if it is it requires a career-long research commitment. Multidisciplinarity, however, which revolves around collaboration rather than around the accrual of individual expertise, is far better suited for undergraduate teaching. The University needs massively to incentivise collaborative teaching: the co-convenorship of modules taught by and to representatives of multiple disciplines built around some shared emphasis, subject matter, or point of inquiry. Imagine a course about murder co-taught by History, Law, and Forensic Science, or a course about Europe taught by Politics, Geography, and Modern Languages. At the moment, it is hard enough for colleagues working in different schools, let alone colleges, even to meet; the idea of them having the space and encouragement to write a curriculum together feels almost risible. It shouldn’t. The largest problems our society faces cut across disciplinary boundaries, and our graduates will need to do the same.
I am not naïve about how difficult this will be. It will require us to swallow our pride, to challenge our assumptions, to admit mistakes, and, sometimes, to give degree credit for things we don’t think deserve it. The discomfort this will create is not something which the University can or should attempt to alleviate – rather, it is precisely the point of the exercise. It will be good for us as well as for our students, who will see, and then learn to be part of, a diverse community working together to bypass instinctive prejudices and come into knowledge together. I would dearly love to work in such a community, but my individual aspirations aren’t worth anything here – this is a problem which only fundamental institutional change can address, needing time, investment, tolerance, and considerable administrative support. It will be hard, but it will be rewarding, and the University can, if it chooses, make it considerably easier.