London is fortunate to have some of the world’s best universities. Within a mile or two of the City are four of the top 40 universities in the world.
For decades, recruiters in big firms have taken a university degree as a signal for a graduate’s ability to master a subject, write well, and fit into a work environment.
But is this the true value of higher education? Bryan Kaplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, claims that up to 80 per cent of the value of higher education is now in the signalling, rather than the learning.
And even the strength of that signal is fading, as half a million new UK graduates emerge each year, typically brandishing a 2:1 degree in one of a handful of subjects.
So, which degree should a school-leaver pick to ensure a top job? As automation is able to do more and more, we are moving into what some have called a “post-professional society”.
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This is just one example of how the modern labour market is creating new demands of the higher education sector. We believe that it is time to add something new: an interdisciplinary degree to complement the hyper-specialised options that dominate.
And so we are creating a new university, the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), opening close to the heart of the City in 2020, to do just this.
LIS’ belief is that we need to move beyond “jobs” and think instead about challenges – the complex problems that we face as a society; ecological destruction, an ageing population, and the effects of modern technology are just three of these.
Employers are putting these issues at the heart of their business purpose, as pressure builds from their own shareholders and boards – as well as their staff and consumers, especially Gen Z.
These problems tend to be “wicked”, meaning interconnected and shifting, with no single answer. So we need a new kind of degree to match.
Today’s graduates need to be able to grapple with data, machines and cutting-edge technology, but also understand the human condition – in other words, what makes us love or fear, collaborate or fight.
For example, serious youth violence is an issue which matters to people living and working in the City and the rest of London. To tackle knife crime holistically requires data specialists who can find the pattern of attacks, lawyers who know how the courts work, anthropologists who understand the fabric of different communities, and psychologists who grasp the pressures that they face.
If those people understand more than one of these disciplines – and the synergies between them – the chances of success are increased.
Look to America
These ideas are more familiar in the US, where liberal arts graduates are courted by recruiters from Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. But the UK is behind, particularly the research-led institutions which struggle to move past disciplinary structures.
Instead of forcing students into academic silos, interdisciplinary degrees help integrate knowledge across different areas. If a traditional degree offers a student a hammer to which all problems are a nail, an interdisciplinary degree puts the problem first and allows the student to find the most appropriate tool from a range of academic disciplines.
The ability of LIS students and graduates to tackle problems in this way is why employers like the Metropolitan Police have already joined us as a founding partner. Other partners will offer paid work placements or project commissions, something that we will offer to all our students.
We hope that LIS can help lift the profile of interdisciplinary higher education, and we look forward to becoming near-neighbours of the City in 2020 – and to many of our graduates contributing to the success of the firms based there.