Future-proofing undergraduates begins with an interdisciplinary skillset

The world is full of complex problems but the current degree path isn’t preparing students to confront them, argues Ed Fidoe 

十一月 9, 2019

New graduates have an unenviable task ahead of them: they are entering a job market in flux, a disrupted economy and an uncertain political landscape. What’s clear is that the world in which we live will look very different in five years’ time. And young people will need to understand, accept and embrace what some will call “risk” in education if they are to future-proof themselves and thrive. 

Yet we are sending out the workforce of tomorrow with the skillset of yesterday. Even the conventionally “safe” jobs no longer seem so secure. Automation threatens monumental changes to law and accountancy, for example. The “big four” of professional services – Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers – are terrified, and so they should be: careers that once carried very little risk now look precarious. There’s a new normal in the job market.

These changes are taking place against a backdrop of large-scale problems: climate change, knife crime, obesity, malaria. Automation, transformative as it may be, will not solve these problems. They are complex and long-term, and require the kind of nuanced thinking of which, for now at least, machines are not capable.

Take malaria, which is still a huge problem in the developing world. It is theoretically possible to change the genes of mosquitos using technology in order to stop them breeding. But is this ethically right? And are we sure that all possible outcomes have been considered? In order to understand a problem like this fully, you need to understand not just gene-editing, but also ecosystems, probability and international relations. 

This is why we need to equip the next generation, and the ones that follow, with a different set of tools. To solve global problems we need people with an interdisciplinary skill set. They need to understand different fields and how those fields overlap and interact. 

And they need to understand how to understand different fields: the current education system forces us to specialise – many of us only know how to drill down into a single area. 

In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, we must stop thinking of such an educational path as unconventional and “risky”. What’s risky is failing to prepare our young people to face up to the challenges plaguing the planet and humanity, let alone their own futures.

Academic researchers understand the benefit of interdisciplinarity but we must extend this type of thinking to undergraduate teaching. An interdisciplinary education is most valuable during a student’s formative years and I’ve met hundreds of young students who are instinctively interdisciplinary already: it is in the way they think. They are academically strong, but they feel as if they are being forced to specialise by the existing education system. These are exactly the type of students who should resist the status quo, and the ones who will thrive in an interdisciplinary educational context.

It’s worth remembering that there are also risks associated with traditional educational routes. The Sutton Trust has found that only 55 per cent of humanities and social sciences graduates from the top 13 universities found professional employment six months after leaving university – and these were the graduates actively looking for jobs. And although STEM students fared better, 25 per cent were still looking for a “good job” after the same length of time.

Good grades are no longer enough to get a job now, either: of the half a million students who graduate each year in the UK, almost 80 per cent of them have a 2:1. And because it’s extremely hard to stand out for your grades alone, employers are increasingly asking to see more evidence of ability whether it’s through internships or something else. The traditional route to a full-time job, then, is no slam dunk.

Corporate employers also understand their role in finding solutions to global problems. They are increasingly under pressure to be environmentally sustainable, socially conscious and for their products to be ethically sourced. In response, they are hiring not just the people who care, but those who understand big, complex problems and have the ability to address them.

Ultimately, the world is changing, but our ways of teaching aren’t keeping up. It has never been more important to encourage the next generation to understand, accept and embrace what might seem like a risky educational path. In the long term, they will be better prepared to adapt and respond to the world of tomorrow.

Ed Fidoe is co-founder of the London Interdisciplinary School.  



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Reader's comments (1)

It might be too late to kick off change at University level. The earliest the change process starts, I mean at pre-primary level itself, the better the mind will be prepared and can be most easily moulded into the suitable shape. The future of research and development will definitely depend on the global understanding of the various spheres of life.