Is multidisciplinary education the new future?

  • Rozelle Laha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 28, 2016 14:04 IST
More and more private universities in India are now allowing students to major in one discipline and take up minors in completely different disciplines. (Courtesy/Ashoka University)

Newly set up private universities in India are offering students courses from different disciplines for all-round academic and aesthetic development.

Gone are the days when students had to necessarily major and minor in the same discipline at a university in India. More and more private players are now allowing students to major in one discipline and take up minors in completely different disciplines, giving them the option familiarise themselves with different subjects instead of just one.

For instance, at Azim Premji University (APU), undergraduates can major in, physics or biology or economics or humanities and opt for minors from other discipline or across many other fields. Subjects for minors include education studies, data sciences and development studies.

“For MA programmes, too, students who take up specialisation, have the room to take up a couple of electives from other domains. A student whether from development, education or public policy programme, can choose from this spread of cross-listed electives,” says S Giridhar, registrar and chief operating officer, APU.

At Ashoka University, a student, irrespective of the discipline of his/her major subject, can pick up minors from subjects like: entrepreneurial leadership, environmental studies, visual and performing arts, media studies, international relations, visual arts, and performing arts.

Even at Shiv Nadar University (SNU), “All undergraduate students have the flexibility to choose multiple university-wide electives - these are regular undergraduate courses from all the departments that are open to all students at the university, regardless of their area of specialisation,” says Professor Rupamanjari Ghosh, director, Schools of Natural Sciences and Engineering and dean of research and graduate studies, SNU.

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Experts say offering interdisciplinary choice of subjects in major and minor specialisations is a positive development. “Universities are here to prepare students to be future leaders, ready for a challenging and uncertain future job market, and increasingly they need to ensure their graduates are global citizens. Teaching subjects in isolation can narrow a student’s outlook and put him or her at a disadvantage, while allowing students to explore across the arts, humanities and sciences can help them to become more rounded, engaged citizens -- more flexible, and crucially, more creative,” says Phil Baty, editor at large, Times Higher Education magazine.

While a mix and match of major and minor disciplines is trending in the new-age private universities in India, at Ashoka University students can get a taste of various courses before they select the subject they wish to major in. Shubhangi Karia, a first-year undergraduate student at the university, for instance, was not sure about the courses she wanted to take up. “After my first semester here, I realised I was interested in fields like philosophy and literature, something that hadn’t ever crossed my mind. Foundation courses ensure that you test the waters of a subject before you invest all your time in studying it,” says Karia.

Undergraduate students at APU need to mandatorily pursue a common curriculum during the first year, that consists of a set of foundational courses on understanding India, creative expressions (like art, music and craft) writing, quant skills and perspective-building courses. These courses carry a weightage about 40% of the total credits of the UG programme. The first year programme is aimed at development of critical thinking, reasoning and effective communication as well as aesthetic development of undergraduate students.

At Ashoka University, critical thinking is a mandatory course students need to take up in both the years. “We believe that any education is worthless without the component of critical thinking. Education is essentially about opening up the doors and windows of the mind. We are not interested in only training people to get jobs; we are interested in educating people for life,” says Prof Rudrangshu Mukherjee, vice chancellor, Ashoka University.

Universities are increasingly trying to expose students to various disciplines and multiple courses that they feel ensures all-round development of their graduates.

“The introduction of American-style liberal arts education, for example, is becoming increasingly popular in China and East Asia. This is based on recognition of the fact that while students there may often be outstanding at math, for example, they have tended to lack the creativity needed to really thrive in the world of work, and to drive economic growth by developing exciting, innovative new products and services. Adding arts and humanities subjects to traditional science courses could potentially help students ask more questions, challenge orthodoxy and think outside traditional silos in a really powerful way. Some of the successful new ideas and products coming from companies such as Apple, for example, are emerging from an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary culture. Perhaps more importantly, the solutions to the world’s grand challenges, such as food security and climate change, are going to emerge from bringing a diverse range of perspectives together,” observes Baty, who is also the editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) had earlier directed universities to adopt the choice-based credit system aimed at promoting interdisciplinary study and allowing students to choose their own subject combinations. However, the implementation of the CBCS had drawn a lot of flak from students and teachers across the country who had raised concerns about its implementation. Delhi University also introduced the CBCS amid protests from students and teachers. The four-year undergraduate programme (FYUP) introduced at DU was also a major reform that aimed to encourage interdisciplinary education but had to be rolled back after UGC directed the DU to move back to the three-year undergraduate degree structure.

SNU, which continues to offer a four-year undergraduate programme, was asked to discontinue it in August 2014. Replying to the status of UGC approval for the course, Ghosh says, “We are compliant with the UGC guidelines. The education policy states that the undergraduate course should be of a minimum duration of three years, which is followed at SNU. The education policy also states that the choice-based credit system should be followed by higher education institutions. Shiv Nadar University was founded on the lines of choice-based credit system and we have been following that since inception. We were only happy to see this new policy.”

Prof (Dr) Jaspal Singh Sandhu, secretary, UGC had forwarded the mail requesting UGC’s views on the validity of the FYUP programme at SNU, to Dr Sunita Siwach, one of the deputy secretaries at, UGC. However, the mail remained unanswered at the time of going to press.

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