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.

5 thoughts on “Introducing interdisciplinary postgraduate degrees? Seven meta-considerations”

  1. Thanks a lot for sharing these important considerations to establish sustainable educational interdisciplinary programs; I have found your suggestions very useful and I followed most of them while designing a postgraduate program in nano-science and technology. However, I have found that the alignment of academic disciplines and belief in the cause and values of such programs are very important as well. I think this might be close to point number 4 and funding a transdisciplinary project might be an appropriate solution in which relevant industry and stakeholders are involved to encourage the effective collaboration between different specialties. One of the most common problems that I have faced is that many academics strongly believe in the effectiveness of homogeneous disciplines and sub-disciplines from the same faculty rather than heterogeneous academic disciplines in supervising the postgraduate students. I suggested that nanotechnology would need three supervisors from three different faculties: social science to manage the innovation and entrepreneurship skills, basic science to deliver the basic knowledge of nanotechnology and applied science in pharmacy, medicine, agriculture, and dentistry to help transferring the lab results to the market and community. There is a strong belief that those disciplines will not be able to work together and the student will be distracted. It might take time to really apply interdisciplinary ideas in academic life and I think that only practice will unify the values of interdisciplinary research among academic disciplines, we just need to overcome the resistance to change, give us the chance to try, and measure the impact of such educational programs. Finally, I think that interdisciplinary education is really essential to create a new generation of researchers who can really understand the impact of this type of research on our community, whereas transformational change in the mindset of academics is called for.

    • Thank you for your comment Tarek,

      Its challenging for some academics to see the value of working across disciplines especially when most of the incentives are disciplinary based, even of they do believe its important for transformational change. Institutional support and commitment at the highest levels of governance is therefore critical to ensure everyone is on the same page and moving toward collaborative efforts. Is this the case at your university? Or are you trying to implement the postgraduate program on your own?

      I’d be very interested to hear more about your experiences in the postgraduate program and your thoughts on the Arab universities you think are doing inter- and trans- disciplinary programs well!

      Thanks again for sharing your experiences
      Kind Regards

      • Thanks Dena for your fast reply

        Actually, they appreciate the value of ID/TD research and they know that it is important to address societal problems, they just don’t want to try new ways of collaboration and they are comfortable with the old ways; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

        My University is a new one and we recently opened a new faculty for postgraduate research. I am working within a committee to design several educational programs and I certainly want to build them in an interdisciplinary fashion. My experience in IDR comes from an extensive three-month online program taught by Gabriele Bammer.

        I think that policymakers want to do education and research in an interdisciplinary way but we have to consider that this type of research is costly and requires a long time of integration with other researchers and stakeholders; unless everyone knows what ID/TD research can bring to the table, they won’t do it and they will stick with their habits and routines in education and research. We are trying to make the change happens (IDR cohort 2020 in Egypt) but it might take time and patience.

        In the case of a postgraduate program that we are designing in nanotechnology, it will be based on integration between different disciplines in the same course and also it will be linked to industry needs in the industrial area near the university. I hope that it will be beneficial to the students and our community in the future.

        Best wishes,

        • Thank you for further explaining your thoughts and your program Tarek,

          its really interesting to hear the challenges you’re having in institutionalising ID/TD within a new Egyptian university. I hope you have further success in the postgraduate program so you can provide evidence of the importance of this way if working (for students, staff and the community!)…I agree it takes time for embedded practices to change and it sounds like you’re providing a great case study for others to learn from!

          Good Luck

          • Thank you Dena For your encouraging words,

            I will definitely do my best to try to achieve sustainable way of doing cross-disciplinary education and research in my University. Once you establish a successful role model, it will motivate other universities and will spread like infectious disease. Our good or evil practices are driven by our habits, values and motivations, therefore it is really hard to discipline interdisciplinarity. We need strong motives and contextual values to target; we need to show successful examples and case studies like yours; we need to add incentives and effective policies to break bad habits and practices. I think that integration and implementation science is the obvious solution to how science should have an impact on community.

            Thanks again and wish me luck to overcome the resistance of academics, researchers, and policymakers to change



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