Interdisciplinary degrees: should business schools invest?
Graduate Employability Outcomes (GEO) is quickly becoming one of the key applicant decision factors when selecting their programmes and which university to attend. While application numbers for business and management studies continue to rise, faculty are increasingly having to turn their attentions to embedding employability into their curricula. There are many solutions for strengthening GEOs in the current provision, however, developing new degrees at the intersection of subjects could be a favourable alternative.
We need to acknowledge that the graduate employment market is changing, especially post-pandemic. While employers look for value, skills and competences, they primarily focus on the graduate’s transferrable skills. Are academic programmes aligned with this and, if not, what should be done to enhance them? In the past decade, we have seen universities introducing degree apprenticeships, looking into the proliferation of specialist MBA programmes, as well as wider innovations related to the content and breadth of curriculum. Further initiatives have included consultancy projects, accreditations with new professional bodies, and the introduction of research/analytic specialisms to improve software familiarity and user capability. If anything, it has most certainly created more options for students.
Interdisciplinary programmes as solution to the problem?
Here, we go a step further on The Guardian’s recent suggestion that one way of differentiating university programmes is to embrace interdisciplinarity, especially between schools and/or faculties. We suggest that interdisciplinarity not only enhances the development of transferable skills, but also increases the marketability of current degrees. It is expected to leverage synergies between complementary disciplines equipping students with the knowledge and skills necessary to solve real-world problems. We see interdisciplinarity as a tool to enable graduates not only to meet existing market demands, but to gain proficiency in a unique skillset they themselves have created. By unleashing the creativity of subject specialists operating across the disciplines, and fully embracing the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) of the future of work skills, the interdisciplinary programmes will nurture graduates who are better equipped to thrive in a fast and complex world.
Unlike double degrees, underpinned by a specialist educational model where students acquire in-depth knowledge in two distinct disciplines, the cross-disciplinary approach breaks down the disciplinary boundaries focusing on their integration. While an interdisciplinary degree could be perceived as unfocused and unspecialised by some, others see it as being creative and positively different, depending on the career one is pursuing. It could either differentiate an employee on the market, or make one appear unqualified by employers for jobs that require a specific subject knowledge.
Setting it all up
In essence, interdisciplinary education is a mode of curriculum design and/or instruction where individual faculty or teams identify, evaluate, and integrate information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of knowledge. This is undertaken to advance students’ capacity to understand issues, address problems, appraise explanations, and create new approaches and solutions that extend beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of instruction. According to the British Academy, an interdisciplinary programme has the following features, including that students:
- Study in more than one academic department
- Study some programmes that are explicitly inter-/cross-/post- disciplinary
- Are asked explicitly (by means of a dissertation or other work) to synthesize or contrast the knowledge acquired in more than one discipline.
We suggest the emphasis of the interdisciplinary focus on the undergraduate curriculum within business schools, e.g., BSc. Business and Science; or Business and Engineering, is important. Despite the many challenges, these types of degrees offer not only significant benefits for future graduates, but also an effective collaboration mechanism across subject areas, leading to radical change in the business education offer.
In addition to actual subject skills, the Learning Outcomes of an interdisciplinary programme should include evaluative judgement and an employable mind-set (i.e. those who perceive themselves more employable are more likely to secure employment); the programme environment and narrative will need to nurture that. There is the further possibility of gaining ‘new’ accreditations across multiple professional bodies, leading to an increase in student satisfaction and the alignment of degrees to more diverse professional standards. This expectedly creates happy employers, strengthens the business school’s reputation, and increases the employability of the graduates.
Interesting, but is it right for my school?
We propose a simple tool to help academics and professionals responsible for new programme development. When considering what interdisciplinary programmes they might want to develop, using a 2x2 matrix would ease the identifying the subject areas which could be effectively matched into a successful mix. The matrix outlined in Table 1 outlines the decision making process for a new interdisciplinary programme development exercise and the strategy associated with each of the scenarios.
Table 1: Interdisciplinary Programme Promotion Matrix
The matrix suggests that a unique programme with two components which are highly complementary is the ideal opportunity and that one should develop and launch such a programme. An example would be a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Digital Technologies, since much of modern business is facilitated by computer science topics such as IT and digital analytics.
A programme which has highly complementary subject components, but low uniqueness should re-consider this combination or will adapt and differentiate the programme. A programme with low complementarity and low uniqueness should not be launched. A programme with low complementarity and high uniqueness might be reconsidered or the two components altered slightly to encourage a more favourable match.
Putting together the team of developers and an independent project lead to support this exercise is paramount. Ultimately, an outcome of an interdisciplinary degree should be greater than the sum of its formative disciplinary parts.
Professor Paul Baines is Professor of Political Marketing at the University of Leicester School of Business; Professor Justin O’Brien is the Executive Director for Postgraduate Programmes at Surrey Business School; Professor Qihai Huang is Head of the Department of Management at Huddersfield Business School; Dr Ioannis Koliousis is Associate Professor of Logistics & Supply Chain Management at Cranfield School of Management; Dr Hanna Yakavenka is the Associate Dean Internationalisation and Business Development at Coventry University London.