A recent article in Times Higher Education considered the rise of multidisciplinary departments and the pros and cons from the point of view of students and academics.
Large, multidisciplinary “mega-faculties” first became popular after the loss of the binary education system in 1992, based on a belief that they would lead to more effective management and cost savings.
Whether the original aims were successful is for individual institutions to decide, but I would argue that the development of these mega-faculties has been driven much more by the needs of management than the needs of the academic environment.
When I was appointed vice-chancellor at London South Bank University in January 2014, the university was arranged into four large multidisciplinary faculties: arts and human sciences; engineering, science and the built environment; health and social care; and business.
Research and teaching at LSBU are highly applied and as part of our strategy the university is working to further strengthen its links with business and the professions, yet the “mega faculties” did not create an identity that could be easily understood by the outside world.
In a sector that has undergone significant and rapid change, we also needed organisational structures that were responsive and adaptable, where decision-making could be closer to the market.
While large faculties might be suitable for the processing and oversight of large numbers of students, they lacked identity and ownership. We wanted students and staff to feel part of a more personal and collegiate environment.
So in the autumn of last year, LSBU instigated a new structure, moving from four faculties to seven distinct schools: applied science; arts and creative industries; the built environment and architecture; business; engineering; health and social care; social sciences and law.
One argument against this approach is that large faculties support multidisciplinarity. However, as Tim Hall, professor of interdisciplinary social studies at the University of Winchester, argued in his THE article, you cannot create this simply by forcing people together.
Multidisciplinarity is driven by culture, environment and opportunity. To address the need for multidisciplinary collaboration, LSBU is in the process of establishing pan-school institutes to focus on issues such as sustainable communities and health and wellbeing. This will surely be more effective than doomed “speed-dating” events for staff such as those described by Hall.
The new schools will have additional responsibilities and greater local control over their own affairs, creating a higher level of accountability. We have also redesigned our professional services around cognate areas to create the equivalent of schools for these professional functions – areas that are just as vital in creating a healthy, dynamic institution.
The success of this strategy will be judged in the coming years, but we are already seeing rapid re-emergence of knowledge transfer partnerships across the university which is – we believe – due in large part to our renewed focus and the direction provided by our new school deans and those leading the relevant professional functions.
Overall, the new model allows us to develop our identity as an enterprising civic university that is having a real impact on business, the professions and society while recognising that different discipline areas need the opportunity to develop their own local cultures.
Most importantly, it tries to acknowledge that it is people - not superimposed “top-down” organisational structures - who actually make the difference.