NEP 2020 talks about universities becoming multi-disciplinary and offering programs which have courses from multiple disciplines. What is multi-disciplinary education?
It is simple. When you study to get a degree in a particular discipline, you don't just study courses in that discipline, but from various other disciplines as well. For example, if you want to do a major in Computer Science, you will study a significant number of courses in Computer Science, but you will also do courses from Mathematics, Engineering, Humanities, and so on.
This all sounds familiar. The important question is: Aren't all university programs multi-disciplinary in nature already. Why is NEP or educationists in general even talking about it. If everyone has accepted it, what is the point of this blog.
Well, everyone hasn't accepted it, and a lot of universities are simply paying lip service to it. And it is a matter of degree. If there is a program in which you have to do 40 courses in 4 years, should you have 10 courses from outside the major discipline, or 20 or 25. So details are important.
Frankly, students have not accepted it, and many universities haven't understood the reason to do it and therefore implement it in ways that goes counter to the reason why it should be done.
For a long time, good universities had a broad based under-graduate education because the education was supposed to make you a good citizen who should be aware of a lot of different things. It was felt that under-graduate program is to improve the breadth and to enable a large number of different careers. If students can pick up very different careers, they ought to have been trained on several different things. But lately, even in the western world, college education is being seen more as improving employability and preparing for a narrower set of careers. People are talking about education being an investment and looking for a return on investment (RoI).
In this new world, students are demanding to know why every course is being taught and how it is going to be useful in one's career. And by "career", they often don't mean next 30-50 years, but the first job that they expect through campus placement. And a large number of courses that we teach (even within the major discipline) aren't meant to help find the first job.
The reality is that your first job is often based on knowledge and skills that you can pick up through a good school education and perhaps six to twelve months of additional training. So if you are only looking for the first job and only want to study which will quickly get you that first job, you don't need to join college at all. (Of course, there is a signaling value in joining a college.)
If I look at the journey of an engineering student, s/he would have started studying for JEE (or other exams) while in 11th class (if not in 9th class, and sometimes even earlier). They had a goal to get into IITs or some other good institution. When they finally take admission to some college, their earlier goal has become irrelevant (whether they succeeded in it or not). To maintain their sanity and motivation, they need to quickly decide on their next goal and works towards them. And often, the goal they choose is to get a job at the end of 4 years (as distinct from thinking about a long term career, or to have a goal of becoming a good engineer independent of what job they will get). And they start thinking of how they will find that job. They figure that they will need to learn a few things and get some soft skills which will be useful in the interview process. Note that they are only focusing on getting a job and not doing a job well. Very quickly they figure out that pretty much no software company asks them questions on chemistry or physics, or a lathe machine, or sociology and so on. And they start questioning why these subjects are being taught to them.
The faculty members are often able to say that courses like partial differential equation will help solve some problems in future (do software developer even code matrix manipulation? no, they just make function calls). But even faculty members are not able to explain why a CS student needs to study Chemistry.
The fact of the matter is that the broad based education has different goals than a very narrow goal that the students want to pursue. And instead of explaining them how a course will help in their narrow goals, we should be talking about why broader goals are important. And the broader goals are not only to become a good citizen aware of a lot of different things from various different perspectives, but also to prepare for future jobs which are yet unknown, and since we don't know what the future requirements are, it is good to have a broad based education since that would increase the chance of success in that unknown world.
If one wants to be highly successful in one's career, there are often two ways to get there. One, you be amongst the best in your chosen field (top 1-2%). This way, you would have respect, you will rise quickly, you will make an impact. Two, you be very good in more than one field (top 25% in say computer science and music). Since most people focus on one field, people who are very good in two or more fields are in big demand and they rise quickly. And most people find it easier to be very good in two things than excellent in one. You have chosen one major discipline based on your interest or guidance you received. Now, you should think of another discipline to be good at. If your curriculum at the university is multi-disciplinary, you would be exposed to many disciplines, learn them seriously and think about what did you enjoy doing the most. That could be your second discipline to get very good at.
The other reason to study multiple things is that most technical knowledge and skills would be obsolete within a few years. A student entering college today would almost certainly be working 50 years from now. How does one survive if most things that one learnt in the university are obsolete. Well, you need to keep learning always. And how do learn as adults. We learn by connecting any new information with the old information we already have. If you know a wide variety of things, there is a better chance that the new thing you need to learn has some connection with what you already know.
In fact, when you learn a seemingly unrelated topic, you still get ideas from that course which can be useful in your primary discipline. Many problems that you will solve in future will require an understanding of its domain.
People become more creative when they study multiple subjects. Some people may be born creative. But a lot of people who are creative have seen many different perspectives in life and are able to use all that knowledge in coming up with a solution.
I can go on and on, but the point is that learning topics from different disciplines have several advantages if you consider broader life and career goals as opposed to just succeed in a campus placement interview.
Now, where do Tier 2/3 universities go wrong in implementing multi-disciplinary curriculum. Note that all the advantages we talked about are accrued by studying a wide variety of subjects. It is not about any specific subjects. While there may be some topics from outside the major discipline which are very important for that discipline (like some Mathematics for Computer Science), and hence can be made compulsory, for the rest of the courses, any set of courses will do as long as there is sufficient breadth. For a computer science program, we may insist on some maths courses, some science courses, some humanities and social science courses, and so on, to require breadth, but there is no justification for making these non-major courses as compulsory. If you want the student to have breadth, let the student decide what will constitute that breadth. If these courses are being done to help in an uncertain future, often your guess regarding what might help a particular student 20 years from now is going to be as bad as the student's own guess.
But most Tier 2/3 universities do not understand the importance of multi-disciplinary curriculum. They are doing it because NEP2020 says so, and because the AICTE model curriculum suggests so. But they have this feeling that this is waste of time, and since these are not "useful" courses, there is no point in investing in them. So no choice to students. May be we can get temporary faculty (low-cost) to teach these courses.
Multi-disciplinary curriculum is so important that one ought to look at university programs from this perspective before confirming admission. And the way to find out whether the university is only paying lip service or is actually serious about multi-disciplinarity is the following:
- Check the fraction of credits from outside the major discipline. If the major discipline has more than 50 percent credits, it is not good.
- Does the university offer second major and minor programs (minor in other disciplines as opposed to specialization within the discipline).
- Does the university offer non-major courses as compulsory courses only or are these electives.
Once you have determined whether a university is serious about multi-disciplinarity, give that a significant weight while comparing your higher education options.
Note: I had recently given a webinar on this topic with iDreamCareer.com and the recording of that webinar is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85-InERkRWM