30 Nov 2020 20:41 IST

Do universities need to be multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary?

Beyond just semantics, there are subtle but noteworthy differences to harness the potential of both

One of the major proposals in the New Education Policy (NEP 2020) is the creation of Multidisciplinary Universities (MDUs), one in every district of the country. While we have over 875 universities, only a handful are truly multidisciplinary. Most of the developed states have more than one university per district but the north-eastern and hill states and others like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa have less than one university per district. In order to meet the one MDU per district criterion, over 100 plus new MDUs would need to be set up and many of the existing ones would need substantial expansion and strengthening to confer a multidisciplinary character.

MDU has been understood to imply a bouquet of disciplines such as arts, sciences, commerce, law, architecture, engineering, medicine for study within the university. The underlying philosophy of promoting MDUs is laudable as students are free to choose courses from different disciplines which not only gives them a liberal outlook through diversified exposure but also helps them to imbibe critical thinking skills and a well-rounded personality, but do we really understand the true import of MDUs?

Philosophy of MDUs

While much is being made of the proposal to set up MDUs, multidisciplinarity was ingrained in ancient Indian knowledge and tradition and has been in existence in the Indian academic world. However, due to wrong policies of the government, universities became fragmented. For example, in Tamil Nadu, Madras Medical College, Guindy Engineering College, Agricultural college, Veterinary college, Arts and science colleges were originally affiliated to the University of Madras but subsequently single discipline universities were created for Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture, Veterinary, Sports and Education by bringing all the colleges in one discipline under the umbrella of specialised universities. Now, what remains with the University of Madras are only the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in BA, BSc, B.Com. Many other state governments have followed similar policies.

Ancient Indian knowledge system (IKS) was based on strong connections amongst concepts, theories and disciplines termed as Sutra Sangati, Padha Sangati and Adyaya Sangati. At a base level, it implied linkages between sutras (aphorisms), between paragraphs and between chapters. At the highest level, commentators and writers were expected to bring out connections through the underlying concepts and theories cutting across disciplines which was mastered by Adi Sankara. To illustrate:

· Varahamihira linked the behaviour of birds and animals for prediction of earthquakes.

· A deep understanding of plant sciences, geology was used to predict water columns in mountainous terrain.

· Dhanurveda is the art of warfare and the injuries - mutilation of limbs and pain suffered by people in a war was linked to Ayurveda which dwells on how to cure diseases and also how to do plastic surgery.

· Ayurveda also intertwines a deep knowledge of metallurgy, animal sciences, plant sciences to make advanced medicines; Gold bhasma, copper bhasma, silver bhasma and mercury compounds are used to prepare Ayurvedic medications while milk and urine of cow, goat, female camels and donkey are used to make special medicines.

· Plant sciences are widely used in preparation of medicines as plant leaves have medicinal properties and roots of the same plant have other useful properties. For the ultimate aim of treating sick people, concepts from metallurgy, animal sciences, and plant sciences were employed.

· The disciplines of Aushadam (medicine), Mantra (Vibratory technology) and Mani (ratnas or planetary positions in Astronomy) are interconnected; if Aushadam cannot cure a person, recourse is taken of Mantra and if this fails the influence of Mani is studied. Mantra explains how various vibrations can influence the hypothalamus and our thinking process. Just as various seasons impact people’s health-cold/ flu/ fever during winter, dehydration and related diseases during summer, so also, seasons affect plants and the medicinal properties of herbs change from season to season. What herbs are to be used in a particular season as Aushadam or medicines were extensively studied in Ayurveda.

Thus, in IKS, concepts, theories and disciplines were always intertwined and interlinked with a common thread binding them to solve a problem. Our ancestors never resorted to fragmentation and study of disciplines in a random manner, since they lived with Nature which never does anything randomly and is an embodiment of rhyme and reason in its quest to maintain equilibrium. Astronomy, astrology, music, fine arts and medicine are all different disciplines but have a common goal of keeping the mind, body and intellect of humans in a state of well-being. If this is understood, multidisciplinary universities will make eminent sense.

Interdisciplinary universities

The interdisciplinary teaching-learning process (IDT) integrates two or more disciplines and facilitates research of complex problems that cannot be tackled by a single discipline. For example, Bioinformatics applies computational techniques to handle the vast magnitude of information on molecular biology to analyse biological pathways and networks by combining the fields of computer sciences, molecular biology, biotechnology, statistics and engineering. Business Management is in itself an inter-disciplinary field as it combines disciplines like accounting, economics, statistics and psychology, IT to comprehend complex production and supply chain issues,manage customer satisfaction and take strategic business decisions.

Interdisciplinary teaching and research

A single discipline addressing problems belonging to that discipline is a unidimensional approach. However, societal problems are complex and require an integrated approach to analyse them. IDUs gained prominence in the 1980s in the USA from the viewpoint of a more meaningful education. The underlying logic was that particularly with regard to student engagement in cultural and societal issues, programmatic outcomes are better served as opposed to ad hoc course selection from a menu of unrelated courses. Integrated teaching and research (IDTR) is organised around topics, issues, themes, problems or ideas and helps students to develop transferable skills including critical thinking, communication and research. The added merit is that from the job point of view, students who have gone through inter-disciplinary courses have a wide choice of industry/ sector to choose from.

Complex societal problems like climate change, elimination of hunger and poverty alleviation, are best tackled through inter-disciplinary research and programmes as IDT brings multiple perspectives from integrated teaching of topics from different disciplines which is not possible by merely having a MDU. For example, in Denmark in order to find out new solutions for the future of agriculture, lawyers, philosophers, economists, sociologists, biologists, botanists have come together to do research. Similarly, computer scientists and economists have come together, to provide solutions to electricity consumers - while the computer scientists analyse integrated data, the economists help to find new markets.

India is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) postulated by the United Nations (UN). To enable tackling of the 17 SDGs,each of which demands complex interdisciplinary solutions, graduates of tomorrow should be exposed to IDTR. To illustrate, if the overarching theme is the first SDG of ‘poverty alleviation’, it will entail teaching and research in relevant aspects of development economics, agriculture, political science, sociology, psychology, technology aspects of production, and delivery. Similarly, the eleventh SDG namely, ‘sustainable cities and communities’ requires IDTR in energy, water, transportation, environment and waste management, psychology of interaction with the environment, eco-design, landscape architecture, health, and democratic participation aspects from political science.

The merits of IDUs are: (a) their multidisciplinary character and concomitant specialisations depending on interdisciplinary teaching, research and societal issue that they address (b) teaching and research focus (c) plentiful opportunities for applied research.

Some may argue that the distinction between MDUs and IDUs is one of semantics but in reality there are subtle differences that need to be appreciated to harness the potential of both and leverage them advantageously for the betterment of society. The Government may need to revisit the one MDU per district criterion and also usher in the concept of IDUs to facilitate adherence to SDG mandates.

(Dr N Jayasankaran is Advisor NMIMS and former Vice Chancellor of Kanchi University; and Suresh Mony is Director of NMIMS, Bengaluru)