Introducing interdisciplinary postgraduate degrees? Seven meta-considerations

By Dena Fam, Scott Kelly, Tania Leimbach, Lesley Hitchens and Michelle Callen

Dena Fam (biography)

What is required to plan, introduce and standardize interdisciplinary learning in higher education?

In a two-year process at the University of Technology Sydney we identified seven meta-considerations (Fam et al., 2018). These are based on a literature review of best practice of interdisciplinary programs internationally, as well as widespread consultation and engagement across the university. Each meta-consideration is illustrated by a word cloud and a key quotation from our consultations.

1: Create an interdisciplinary community and culture

There was a perceived need to develop and foster supportive and mutually beneficial relationships among students, and between students and academic staff, as well as to build dynamic and healthy working relationships among the academic areas involved. These relationships were perceived as necessary for maintaining a life-long connection with students, as well as the need for embedded structures to support an interdisciplinary culture and community.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

2: Interactively engage with industry and external stakeholders

Engaging industry and external stakeholders with interdisciplinary programs was perceived as necessary to produce 21st century employment-ready graduates, ensuring the development of integrated skillsets, both broad-based and specialised to meet industry needs. Creating a “cradle-to-cradle” relationship with industry is required, where industry partners are involved from inception through to completion of the interdisciplinary programs as evaluators of programs and student projects. This approach was also perceived as a way of ensuring students gained authentic learning experiences.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

3: Understand external market dynamics

Clearly understanding ‘external market dynamics’, especially the impact of competitors on the market (ie., other university and industry offerings), and the demand for new educational programs in current and future markets, has the potential to ensure that interdisciplinary programs are sustainable. With a declining post-graduate market, identifying relevant industry skills and market demand before investing in new programs is key. In addition, clarifying the scope, purpose and added value of interdisciplinary programs to a disciplinary degree was perceived as critical.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

4: Operationalise and overcome transition tensions early

Existing university structures tend to reinforce disciplinary boundaries potentially creating tensions when transitioning to new interdisciplinary programs. There was a perceived need for start-up funding for interdisciplinary programs and distribution of funds across academic areas. Significant operational issues are staffing these new programs, best deploying existing teaching capacity and building capacity in academics unfamiliar with interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

5: Plan for successful governance

Interviewees suggested that successful governance of interdisciplinary programs required appropriate structures in their design, implementation and evaluation that should ideally be developed in collaboration with academic areas across the university. Accreditation of programs with industry buy-in to ensure relevance and longevity, as well as funding structures that ensure financial viability need to be considered across areas in regard to how the interdisciplinary program adds value to the existing suite of disciplinary programs offered by the university. An effective university structure would ideally include a committee to ensure that interdisciplinary programs proposed had inter-area collaboration and input and investment for a senior position at the university to oversee the transition to interdisciplinary programs.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

6: Design courses for innovation and flexibility

Flexibility in options, teaching methods and subject selection has the potential to cater to a diverse range of needs of both domestic and international students and is increasingly seen as a preferred approach to teaching and learning. Flexibility is required for optimising course structures to benefit both student outcomes and the ultimate success of interdisciplinary programs. Flexibility in this context relates to offering a range of options to students through a mix of online, intensive, and evening courses, as well as industry programs. This will require staff to teach via a range of approaches including blended learning, online, face-to-face and experiential and flipped learning as well as offering students core, compulsory and common subjects.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

7: Ensure quality, rigour and relevance

Academic quality and rigour in any program are paramount for its success and long-term relevance. The process of how academic quality and rigor is evaluated and ensured in interdisciplinary degrees was an emerging theme in the analysis. A key consideration was aligning programs to industry standards that are assessable and meet quality criteria, and that have a clear storyline and purpose for why they are of value. There was a perceived value in offering external audit and evaluation processes to ensure that the integrity of the interdisciplinary program meets both university and industry standards.

(Source: Fam et al., 2018)

What considerations have others identified in setting up interdisciplinary programs? Do these meta-considerations resonate with you? What is missing from our list?

To find out more:
Fam, D. M., Leimbach, T., Kelly, S., Hitchens, L. and Callen, M. (2018, forthcoming). Meta-considerations for Planning, Introducing and Standardising Interdisciplinary Learning in Higher Degree Institutions. In, D. M. Fam, L. Neuhauser and P. Gibbs (eds.), Transdisciplinary theory, practice and education: The art of collaborative research and collective learning. Springer: Basel, Switzerland. (Online):

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability) institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.


Biography: Scott Kelly PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He also holds research affiliations with the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies and the Energy Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge, UK and was elected as a Junior Research Fellow of Darwin College, University of Cambridge, UK. Scott has a passion for using computational methods and data analytics for modelling complex real-world problems, including energy systems, economics, catastrophe modelling, climate change policy and sustainable development.


Biography: Tania Leimbach PhD currently works as a consultant and strategist at the Sydney-based social enterprise, Old Ways, New developing projects that sit at the intersection of Indigenous cultural knowledge systems and technological innovation. She lectures within the School of Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, and within the Masters program at the University of New South Wales Art + Design, both in Australia. In recent research she has examined art/science partnerships and the potential for transdisciplinary learning embedded in new forms of collaborative practice.


Biography: Lesley Hitchens is a professor of law and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Her main research area is media and communications regulation, with a particular focus on the relationship between media policy and regulation, and, more recently, the impact of new media on traditional regulatory approaches. Her research also has a comparative focus, concentrating on Australia, the UK (and European Union) and the USA.


Biography: Michelle Callen has a diverse communications background and has a strategy and communications role within the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Being the first in her family to benefit from a university education instilled a belief in the transformative power of education and the importance of a quality, accessible and equitable higher education system. She is interested in identifying and tackling institutional barriers to enabling cross-, inter- and trans-disciplinary learning, research and collaboration.

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