What are interdisciplinary degrees - and are they the secret to getting ahead in your career?

As Zayed University launches new degrees to give students a broader education, we look at what they mean for learning and employability

WESTWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 11: Graduating UCLA students celebrate while walking the stage for their commencement ceremony at Drake Stadium on June 11, 2021 in Westwood, California. Up to 230 students per hour were able to participate in the graduate procession. Each graduate was allowed two guests and were permitted to remove their masks before crossing the stage.   Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP

Should universities focus on subject-specific knowledge – or give students a broad range of capabilities that can be applied in any setting?

Or both?

Zayed University’s contribution to this ongoing discussion in education comes in the form of a string of new courses designed to equip students with interdisciplinary skills.

The university has struck an agreement with the Minerva Project, called Zayed University X Minerva, to create "the next generation of problem solvers", said Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth and President of Zayed University.

While a university education may offer a grounding in only one subject, Zayed University and Minerva will, from September, run bachelor’s degrees that aim to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries – and offer new ways of learning, too.

When you organise things in particular disciplines, that creates limits on what people can learn

The business transformation, computational systems and social innovation courses will mix “active learning, experiential activities and professional immersion”, said Ben Nelson, Minerva Project’s founder.

With the social innovation course, everything from arts to economics, to political science to psychology will be on the curriculum.

The new courses are the latest of many examples of higher education institutions trying to create links between subjects.

What is interdisciplinary learning?

Prof Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, a partnership of more than a dozen universities, said efforts to develop interdisciplinary studies date back at least two decades.

They are, he said, a “natural and normal part” of having a discipline-based approach because, if there are separate subjects, the question arises of how they fit together.

“You cannot have interdisciplinary without disciplines,” he said.

High school students take the French exam, the first test session of the 2021 baccalaureate (high school graduation exam) on June 17, 2021 at the Pasteur high school in Strasbourg, eastern France. / AFP / FREDERICK FLORIN
Single-subject degrees and traditional exams can leave many students without the real-world skills needed in the workplace. AFP

“When you organise things in particular disciplines, that creates limits on what people can learn.”

It therefore seems sensible, he said, to consider ways in which disciplines can be combined and useful “intersections” between them explored.

A wide range of skills may be fostered with this approach, such as creativity, teamwork, flexibility, critical thinking and communication.

Countries vary widely by whether they require students to specialise or follow a more broad-based curriculum. The United States is renowned for its liberal arts tradition, in which students take courses in a wide variety of disciplines.

Such an approach is designed to prepare them to achieve a range of goals in their careers.

In the UK, bachelor’s degrees are often more specialised, and in response to this, The London Interdisciplinary School, which offers a three-year course that leads to a bachelor of arts and sciences (BASc) degree, will be launched this year.

It has been described as offering elements of a US liberal arts education, but with a greater focus on drawing from multiple subjects to look at particular issues, such as crime or environmental problems, perhaps offering parallels with Zayed University’s new courses.

What do employers make of it?

While interdisciplinary courses may themselves be useful starting points for careers because of the skills students acquire, they are sometimes usefully followed by training in particular areas.

"It's not a substitute for occupational or professional education," said Prof Marginson, who has written several books on higher education, including Higher Education and the Common Good.

“If you’re heading for a profession, you need to acquire that knowledge. For the optimal workplace preparation, you may need to do another course on top of [an interdisciplinary one].”

So a bachelor’s degree in the US may often be followed by a far more specialised postgraduate education in a subject such as engineering, law or business.

However, instead of having a sequential pattern of education, Prof Marginson said that diverse subjects can be taught simultaneously, equipping graduates with both pure subject knowledge and practical skills.

An example might involve combining engineering with business management, giving students both technical knowledge and entrepreneurial skills.

“A lot of people are doing tech and business in one way or another,” he said.