Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships: components of revenue generation and public value in higher education

By Martin Vogel


Over recent years, we have developed a focus on supporting academics and managers in universities who are trying to foster greater interdisciplinary working and greater engagement with external partners. This series of blog posts reviews our learning in this area and explores how our counter-consultancy approach is especially suited to resolving challenges that higher education institutions encounter in pursuing interdisciplinary objectives.

Interdisciplinarity and external partnerships are distinct but closely related areas for universities. While disciplines represent communities of practice that transcend the boundaries of any one university, the idea of disciplines also serves as an institutional heuristic that facilitates internal ways of organising. But in their pursuit of research outcomes that deliver tangible value to society, universities are finding that questions that range across disciplinary distinctions are increasingly salient. This is largely driven by the complexity and pace of change of the modern world. Governments and other funders of research are searching for solutions to big global challenges that are best approached through joined-up interdisciplinary enquiries. Funding is increasingly focussed around themes such as demographic change and wellbeing, food security or climate change. External partners too, caught up in this complexity, are bringing research questions that range across disciplinary distinctions.

Interdisciplinarity, then, has increasing salience both as a criterion that unlocks research funding and as a way for universities to optimise their public value. Many universities have strengths across multiple disciplines. But to harness them in interdisciplinary collaboration challenges established cultures and ways of working. Traditional approaches to strategy and organisational development don’t easily yield the kind of results universities are seeking, because such approaches rely too much on the formal structures and lines of authority which interdisciplinarity needs to work round. We have found our background in public service broadcasting has enabled us to work sensitively in this kind of environment.

We began working in the higher education sector at a time when the very concept of the value of higher education was becoming contested. The Government had introduced a new framework of tuition fees, whereby universities could charge degree students up to £9,000 per annum, and the Research Excellence Framework was putting a new focus on the impact of university research. The rapid influx of market values was calling into question old ideas regarding the intrinsic value of research and education. With our experience in working with public value frameworks, we felt we could help universities articulate their value in terms relevant to the new environment while also making the case for long-standing purposes of higher education.

As we began to engage with the sector, we saw affinities with the culture of public service broadcasting. Like the BBC, universities are domestic public service institutions operating in a competitive global environment. On the one hand, they exist to deliver outcomes to society – serving a complex array of stakeholders with diverse and conflicting interests. On the other hand, they face facing intense pressure to improve operational effectiveness – the better to stand up to competitors. They are challenged to raise their game in areas such as the quality of student experience, the ability to attract talented academics and provide them with interesting research opportunities, and generally delivering maximum value for the money spent on operating costs.

This soon leads to questions around the possibilities and constraints arising from the tradition of academic freedom. Self-organising academics have evolved this tradition over centuries as a proven means to generate excellent academic research and to educate successive generations of students. Yet it creates obstacles for higher education leaders charged with the task of transforming cultures in order to create more value.

These dynamics were familiar to us as journalists coming from the BBC. Instead of academic freedom, we had a tradition of editorial autonomy – especially prized in news environments since it underwrites the ability of journalists to pursue enquiries without fear or favour. One of the main challenges of leadership in the BBC over the years has been how to balance the tradition of editorial autonomy against the strategic imperative to transform programme-making cultures in order to equip the BBC to navigate seismic changes in the media industry. In both higher education and in public service broadcasting, the legitimate terrain of management initiative gets politicised remarkably quickly. Academics and programme-makers are naturally defensive of their high levels of professional freedom and become sensitised to management intervention. Strategic leadership can easily become contested. If anything, the challenge is more intense in higher education, since academics have an affinity with their discipline which at times overrides their affinity with their institution. In the BBC, loyalty to the institution is much greater and the conflict becomes one about whether editorial autonomy or interventionist leadership best serves its interests.

As higher education has become more marketised, universities have experienced an intensification of competition for students, academic staff and research funding. There’s been a noticeable shift to a more instrumental ethos, with arts and humanities in particular challenged to demonstrate their relevance. These developments have prompted one academic, Stefan Collini, to remind us that the case for universities should not concede too much to mercantilism:

“Of course the case for their value and importance needs to be made. But it needs to be made in appropriate terms, and these terms are not chiefly, and certainly not exclusively, economic. They are intellectual, educational, scientific, and cultural. In addition, it has to be emphasized that higher education is a public good, not simply a set of private benefits for those who happen to participate in it, and therefore that it is a mistake to allow the case for universities to be represented as a merely sectional or self-interested cause on the part of current students and academics.”

In fact, one could argue (as Collini does) that the benefits are not even limited to the current generation of the public at large, as universities serve as custodians and transmitters of knowledge for future generations. In this sense, a focus on current outcomes of knowledge is misconceived as the future benefits of knowledge are impossible to define.

At the same time though, the quickening pace of change that throws up complex problems all around us today does fuel the impression that academic research not only has a responsibility to deliver significant real world outcomes in the present but could also heighten its contribution by mining the richness that lies in the links between disciplines. Research funders and assessors are already alert to this and are developing sophisticated, algorithmic means of teasing out affinities between apparently distinct research interests. Academics we’ve encountered are excited by groundbreaking insights that are arising from collaboration between disciplines. One that I encountered through our work with King’s brought together artists, medical practitioners and people with stroke. They were collaborating to improve rehabilitation from stroke through working in performance arts. Within disciplines themselves, it’s already (and counter-intuitively) common sense to bring multidisciplinary approaches. (We attended a fascinating seminar in Leeds offering a nutritional perspective on the Middle Ages, with particular reference to King Duarte of Portugal’s diet for the stomach – don’t try it at home.) But it seems to be much harder to foster interdisciplinary enquiry that permeates the boundaries between faculties.

In our experience, there exists in higher education an enthusiasm to realise the possibilities of collaboration alongside a continuity of traditional structures which can get in the way. Since the organising structures (be they faculties, schools or departments) tend to reflect disciplinary distinctions, perhaps they represent impediments to cross-fertilisation. Alongside this, the tradition of academic autonomy remains strong. While it facilitates depth and specialism in research, it also encourages a perception of protection from external pressures and therefore promotes resistance to change. Last, but not least, career progression creates strong incentives for academics – particularly those starting out – to focus on their discipline. Those who collaborate on ground-breaking interdisciplinary projects may find it hard to get recognised by peer-reviewed journals or by REF panels which tend to reinforce disciplinary judgments.

This means that universities embody tensions between (crudely) those who want the culture to be more adaptive to the needs of fee-paying students, external partners and societal stakeholders and those who are more focussed on pursuing excellence in research for its own sake. These tensions don’t need to be obstructive, though. A university is capable of delivering outcomes related to diverse and even conflicting objectives. The tensions, if addressed openly and maturely – that is, as creative tensions – can be a means of holding these objectives in some kind of balance.

In the next post, we’ll look at how initiatives for interdisciplinary collaboration surface these tensions and how we help universities work with them with sensitivity.

Other posts in this series:

Image courtesy d26b73.