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How radical is the educational offer of the London Interdisciplinary School?

  • 6 November 2020
  • By Paul Ashwin

This blog was kindly contributed by Paul Ashwin, Professor of Higher Education at Lancaster University and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education. Paul is on Twitter @paulashwin

I have recently published a book in which I offer a manifesto for transforming university education. I was therefore fascinated by the headlines that greeted the news that the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) has been granted degree-awarding powers, which proclaimed in line with the responses to its original launch, that it marked a completely new departure for UK undergraduate higher education.

Part of my fascination was due to the apparent contrast between my arguments in Transforming University Education: A Manifesto and the portrayal of what is offered by LIS. I argue that the transformational power of undergraduate degrees lies in students’ gaining access to structured bodies of knowledge that transform their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world. This directly challenges the notion that the purpose of an undergraduate degree is to provide students with generic employability skills such as problem-solving. The curriculum for LIS is focused on the solving of ‘real world’ problems with the teaching of problem-solving at the heart of its educational endeavour.

So what is happening here? Does this represent a profound clash of educational ideologies? Is the LIS a radical departure for UK higher education?

A deeper examination of what underpins LIS reveals that there is no such clash and that the LIS approach is far less radical than the headlines suggest. In addition, while the underlying educational approach looks sound, its presentation reflects the damaging hold that ideas of elite education have on public perceptions of what constitutes a high quality undergraduate education. 

In my book, I argue that it is a mistake to understand the purposes of undergraduate education in terms of generic skills that are separated from academic knowledge. While the LIS approach foregrounds solving real world problems, the course content shows that the solving of these problems is based on diverse forms of academic knowledge and research methods. Thus, rather than separating problem solving from academic knowledge, problem solving is rooted in interdisciplinary knowledge.

Rather than being a radical new departure for undergraduate education, the design of the programme is reminiscent of the kind of interdisciplinary programmes based in the social sciences and humanities that largely developed in the old polytechnic sector. For example, my own first degree in the Applied Social Sciences at Kingston, which became a university in the year I graduated, examined the challenges facing the welfare state in terms of its politics, sociology, economics and philosophy with supporting courses on research methodologies. It remains by far the best course I have ever studied and the teaching was of a much higher quality than I subsequently experienced in much more prestigious institutions. 

The intention behind LIS also has remarkable echoes of the curricula that it was hoped that the new universities of the 1960s would develop. For example, this quote from renowned social historian Harold Perkin’s (1969) New Universities in the United Kingdom, which was described as ‘conventional wisdom’ by Peter Wilby then of The Times Higher Educational Supplement, could have been written as part of the marketing materials for LIS:

When a degree has become the indispensable passport to almost every kind of career demanding high intellectual ability… it is obvious that the old-fashioned single subject honours degree designed to produce such scholars and researchers is inappropriate to the vast majority of students… [M]ost of the great discoveries and advances are being made in the borderlands between traditional disciplines as in the ‘cracking’ of the genetic code of DNA by a team of biologists, biochemists, crystallographers, electronic engineers and computer scientists, or by the application of inter-disciplinary tools, as in the radio-carbon dating of archaeological specimens or the use of statistics in historical analysis. Inside and outside the university, the graduate needs that flexibility of mind, that ability to connect the apparently unrelated, to unite hitherto disparate fields of experience, which in industry and commerce is market opportunism and in scientific or scholarly research is the inductive leap of genius.

While there is nothing particularly new about the educational intention of the LIS, taking this approach across a whole institution is unusual. The educational approach also appears sound. The key to educational quality is that a degree programme is carefully designed to bring its students into relationship to bodies of knowledge that can change their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world. As with the course I studied at Kingston, the LIS curriculum appears to do this by offering students access to a number of ways of thinking in order to engage with complex real world problems. It provides a coherent and carefully designed experience that includes a clear sense of who students are expected to become through their engagement with this knowledge. It is also a world away from the development of knowledge-free generic skills or a collection of unrelated modules that can sometimes characterise an interdisciplinary ‘education’.

Where things get more problematic is in the way in which the LIS suggests it offers an education for ‘students of outstanding achievement and potential‘ supported by polymath teaching staff handpicked from leading UK and US universities and companies. Rather than being a problem that is specific to LIS, marketing its educational offer in this way illustrates the strong hold that ideas of elite education have on public perceptions of what constitutes a high quality undergraduate education. It is a problem because, as I show in my book, elite systems of higher education always reproduce social inequalities by mistaking social privilege for academic potential in students and institutional prestige for educational quality in universities. LIS would represent a far more radical departure for UK higher education if, rather than focusing on the chosen few, it focused on playing a role in providing access to an inclusive higher education system for everyone who can benefit from access to the transformational knowledge that higher education has to offer.

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  1. To what extent, if any, is the student experience determined not only by the undergraduate curriculum and the possibility (or otherwise) of combining programmes and courses from [here] and [there], but also by the structure of the academic departments and the overall campus culture?

    Although a student might take a module in, say, sociology and another in systems thinking, if those in the Sociology Faculty are in a building half-a-mile from those in Engineering, although the students might mingle, the corresponding faculty members are unlikely to.

    So might one key to the successful delivery of a ‘transformational agenda’ lie as much in the design of the organisation as in that of the syllabus?

  2. Paul Ashwin says:

    Thanks Dennis. The spatial organisation can have an impact but often attempts to increase interdisciplinarity by putting subjects next to each other have been unsuccessful. My sense is that you need joint projects that all subjects have a direct interest in making successful and in which success requires them to work together. Otherwise the real costs of engaging with other subjects will be too great a barrier.

  3. Thank you too Paul. Yes, spatial organisation is indeed a factor, but what I had in mind was that and much else too, including the structure of the management organisation and also the nature of the organisational culture.

    It is surely true that if a Professor of Sociology and a Professor of Engineering are within the same the same Faculty of Social Engineering (!), and have adjacent offices, they might still never talk to each other. Likewise, talking to each other does not require them to be in the same faculty, nor in adjacent offices.

    So I was just thinking that maybe the successful delivery of “the complete student” is as much determined by those sorts of things as it is by the curriculum…

    (oops… and sorry about those two ‘althoughs’, which, on re-reading my post, are pretty clumsy!)

  4. Paul Ashwin says:

    Thanks Dennis – yes I agree

  5. John Claughton says:

    Surely the LIS degree only represents a further step down the road of reason which leads away from single subject degrees towards a more multi-disciplinary/inter-disciplinary approach. The single subject degrees have not only generated the Two Cultures and created a ruling class which is, too often devoid, of any scientific or mathematical reasoning. It has also narrowed post-16 education for decades to three, usually related, subjects when we know that Engineering is not just Maths and Physics and Medicine is not just Chemistry and Biology and everyone could benefit from reading, writing and communicating.
    That’s why this country not only needs more universities which offer degrees like LIS, but also a move in schools away from the dead hand of the ‘Gold Standard’ of A levels towards the multi-disciplinary International Baccalaureate Diploma.

  6. Anthony Friend says:

    Hello John,

    I have a question and was wondering as to whether you might be as kind to point me in the right direction: is there any literature / studies that connect the idea of multi-disciplinary courses with social justice, especially at the school curriculum level?

    I’d like to look into this issue further and don’t really know where to start.

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