Past to present: From interdepartmental to interdisciplinary programmes

Who is more important in today’s society, a central heating engineer or a multi-skilled manager?  A dental prosthetist or a primary care physician?  What sort of professionals should the University be training, ones who are highly specialised or ones who, on the contrary, are well-rounded?  Marina Lavrikova, Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods, speaks about the importance of developing interdisciplinary academic programmes.

Ms Lavrikova, why don’t we begin with a simple question:  What are interdisciplinary academic programmes?

The question is not as simple as it seems.  On the one hand, as prescribed in the St Petersburg University Development Programme Up to 2020, the University is taking an interdisciplinary approach to education and research.  And at present, the content of many academic programmes at the University make it possible to speak about their interdisciplinarity.  On the other hand, current Russian legislation pertaining to education does not define what an interdisciplinary programme is.  And in the field of education, there are both limited and broadside approaches to understanding what the distinctive features (criteria) of an interdisciplinary programme are.

In order to arrive at a consensus about what an interdisciplinary degree programme is and what its distinctive features (criteria) are, a roundtable discussion was held at St Petersburg University in March 2017.  A public debate was also organised on the University website, and proposals were received from directors and deans, from the chairs of academic and methodological commissions and from academic and research units of the University.  As a result, we came to the conclusion that a programme can be considered interdisciplinary if it meets one or more of the following five criteria: 

Based on what we discovered after all of these efforts, and after having synthesised and analysed the expert opinions of the University’s academic staff, we came to the overall conclusion that an academic programme at St Petersburg University is interdisciplinary if it satisfies these criteria:

  • it encompasses two or more fields of knowledge
  • it encompasses two or more areas of professional practice

But there are still complications with regard to such programmes.  For example, while the Oriental Studies programme involves only one field of study (Oriental and African Studies), it is in substance interdisciplinary, since it includes the study of history, language, economics, political science and the like.  It is the same problem with programmes in Arts and Humanities, among others.  We have had such programmes at the University.

It would seem that there is a conflict here between two tendencies in contemporary education.  On the one hand, we see a narrowing down to more and more limited areas of expertise, and on the other, an expansion toward interdisciplinarity.

The problem goes even deeper.  It comes down to what we see as the purpose of education today.  What should an institution of higher learning aim to do?  To teach a student a profession at an appropriate level of skill, or develop certain competencies in them, with an orientation toward different fields of knowledge, so that once they graduate they will be able to use these competencies in any profession.  In other words, should they be training a “synthesised” professional, or one who is “universal”?  There is no definitive answer to this question, since the needs of the society and the job market call for both narrowly-focused professionals and those with a broader base capable of carrying out a diverse range of tasks.  I think that nobody will argue with the notion that physicians and engineers need specialised training in medicine and engineering, respectively.  And that corporate directors, who run a variety of projects, need, as a rule, broad professional training. 

It is important for a university to cater to the needs of employers, since successful job placement and career development of graduates is one of the main indicators of how good an education that university provides.  That being said, we need to bear in mind that, in our country, right now a system is taking shape that produces a structural framework for the job market and professional training based on professional standards and a demand for professional qualifications.   The job market, however, is very dynamic and diversified, and the professional demands are rapidly changing, so the educational system must manage to react to the changing requirements that are placed on it.  Incidentally, scholarly research is one of the professions on the job market in which, above all, graduates of traditional universities are in demand.  We at St Petersburg University understand this full well, and so the portfolio of our academic programmes is highly diversified.   The interdisciplinary approach gives us ample opportunities to create up-to-date, unique and eagerly-sought-after academic programmes at different levels. 

When we develop new academic programmes, we follow the list of degree fields that has been approved by the Ministry of Education and Science. They are subject to occupational standards approved by the Ministry of Labour and meet the laws of the Russian Federation on education.  At the same time, academic programmes must be developed with allowances made for the rapidly changing requirements of the job market, the growing demands of employers in terms of the kinds and levels of expertise possessed by graduates, the sharp rise in the amount of information and the emergence of new ways of working with it, and also the need to solve complex, multivariate problems.  The creation of programmes aimed at training, on the one hand, highly specialised professionals, for example The Lawyer in the Field of the Financial Market (The Financial Lawyer), and, on the other hand, all-round professionals, for example, Cold Region Environmental Landscapes Integrated Science (CORELIS), depend on these and other factors. 

Is it possible to estimate how many interdisciplinary degree programmes there are at the University?

In 2008, there were a shade over 200 academic programmes at the University, and around fifteen of them were interdisciplinary.  At the present moment, the number of degree programmes at St Petersburg University is approaching 400, and already one out of four is interdisciplinary.

How did interdisciplinary programmes use to come about, and how are they created now?  Could you give some examples of successful ones?

It used to be that interdisciplinary programmes came about as a result of cooperation among the members of groups in different units of the University.  Some teachers of the older generation still refer to such programmes, not as interdisciplinary, but as interdepartmental (see Minutes of the Meeting with Public held on 21 June 2017).  Such cases, however, were exceptions to the rule since, not only the skilled workers but also the financial, technological, estate management, informational and all the other resources were at the disposal of sometimes, not even the deans or the directors of the research institutes, but of the heads of different departments and laboratories. 

A few years ago, this question was sent to the Rector via the Virtual Reception of St Petersburg University:   ‘Why aren’t there any classes at the …Faculty?’  Ekaterina Babelyuk, the Senior Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, Extracurricular Work and Methodological Support responded to the question by saying that, when the rector has been receiving members of the public, there have been a number of occasions when he has had to stop a visitor who had said, ‘This happened at the …Faculty,’ and correct them:  ‘This happened on the premises of the University, at such-and-such an address.’  And then he had to explain that a faculty is a group composed of University staff, not a building.  And that lectures, seminars and other classes, extracurricular events and conferences do not take place on the premises of the faculties but on the premises of the University!  Such a confusion of terms can also be seen in the way questions that come in to the Virtual Reception are worded. 

So, then, students are enrolled in academic programmes, not at faculties or in departments.

The Federal Law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation’, which was enacted as of 1 September 2013, states that the Russian educational system is based on the principle of programmes.  These educational programmes embrace all levels, from kindergarten all the way up to postgraduate job-training programmes with the highest qualifications (clauses 10 and 12).  The resources that a Russian citizen needs to receive an education at any particular level belong to certain organsations, in our case the University.  For example, at St Petersburg University, there are more than 1,700 academic programmes at different levels.  You can compare this figure with the number of faculties (sixteen) and academic and research institutes at the University (six).

What is more, there is not a single degree programme at the University that has been brought about by the efforts of the staff working in just one faculty or institute (and so the phrase ‘I am a student at the such-and-such faculty’ is factually incorrect).  The general courses offered to all students (History of Russia, Foreign Languages, Philosophy, Psychology, Concepts of Modern Natural Sciences, Physical Training and other subjects) are taught by instructors of other subjects. They are not part of any given group of lecturers in physics or mathematics or economics or international relations, but this does not mean that we can misleadingly say that they work at some other faculty.  All of them work at the University.  And this is a tremendous advantage that a traditional university has.

All the resources of the University are equally accessible to all students.

But this has not always been the case; it has become so only in recent years.  The situation began to change gradually in 2010.  Before that, for instance, the building at 5 Mendeleevskaya Liniya on Vasilievsky Island was surrounded by a grid-iron fence that separated off premises accessible to all members of the University community from those that were open only to ‘historians’ and others that were the private domain of ‘philosophers’.  And in the parts of the building on the Smolny campus, where the sociology, international relations and political science students had their classes, each faculty, as was the custom at that time, had its own dining hall, its own library, its own courtyard and its own security guards.  What is more, the deans of each faculty had their own cleaning staff, security guards, office staff, programmers, research assistants, and so on.  If the students and teachers of one faculty wanted to get into the premises of either of the neighbouring faculties, they had to go out onto the street and go into another part of the same building, for which they had to have a special pass…  It was even difficult to imagine that a free classroom or equipment in one of the faculties could be used by teachers from one of the other faculties.  It was as if it was not one single University, but separate, independent educational institutions.  They were more like typical next-door neighbours than colleagues.  That is the way it was about twenty years ago, and it was only in 2012 that we managed to tear down the walls that separated these different groups within the University community (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 17 September 2012, A Step Towards Unifying the University – Smolny Campus Becomes One).  And now, in this building, the classrooms are accessible to all staff and students, as are the dining halls and the equipment. 

This pooling of resources takes place throughout the University.  New, up-to-date equipment is acquired and is allocated to the resource centres of the St Petersburg University Research Park.  It is accessible to all users on equal terms; it is not spirited off, as it used to be, to different laboratories or departments.  The electronic resources of the St Petersburg University Research Library, comparable in volume to those at Harvard, are accessible to all students (St Petersburg University Electronic Resources; Electronic Journals).  Students are put up in residence halls according to uniform rules, not the way it used to be when there were special residence halls for physics students and for law students, and each dean, at their own risk and peril, bankrolled repairs in their own residence hall (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 5 September 2011).  A single, unified timetable has been introduced, making it possible to see the availability of classrooms in all University buildings (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meetings held on 18 February 2013 and 20 July 2015).  The use of facilities that are not used for teaching has also been centralised, and, in order to hold a major event, you can select the room that you need, fitted out with the equipment that you need, ahead of time.  And, for example, meetings of the St Petersburg University Academic Council are held not only in the Assembly Hall of the Twelve Collegia Building, but in auditoriums in other buildings at the University – on the Mikhailovskaya Dacha campus, at 21-25 Tavricheskaya Street, at building 7 22nd Line, at 16 Dekabristov Alley and other places.

Schoolchildren who are enrolled in general secondary education programmes at the University enjoy access to all of the University’s resources.  They are entitled to use the books and the reading rooms in the St Petersburg University Research Library, the gymnasiums and other sport facilities, the laboratories, the scientific equipment and other resources in any building at the University – just like the students and the members of the staff (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 29 September 2014). 

The same rules apply to one and all

This is an important corollary of a unified University.  For example, all decisions concerning any student at the University (the deadlines for taking tests and handing in coursework, the procedures for taking exams, the assessment of grades, etc.) are made according to general rules.  And the rules themselves are approved only after they have been discussed by the Student Council.  All students, no matter which academic programme they are in, have equal rights, and their interests are protected by one and the same monitoring system. An instrument of publicity, the Virtual Reception is just one part of this system.  When students appeal to members of the University administration, the unified system of information makes it possible to render the proper assistance.  And the uniform rules used in carrying out open competitions for places in student exchange programmes with foreign universities (Studying Abroad in Exchange Programmes), and for carrying out on-the-job training and conferences (Openings for On-the-Job Training and Competitions) make it possible for all students at the University to have equal chances of success. 

When it comes to the University buildings, they are serviced, repaired and provided for according to general rules.  And this relates both to providing staff with, for example, office supplies or consumable materials, and to the working of the electric and heating systems.  This makes it possible to expeditiously resolve many maintenance problems (‘Why is it so cold in the classrooms in the building at building 2 9th Line?’; ‘How long am I going to have to live in this cold room?!’; ‘Turn on the hot water in the bathrooms of the University’s main building!’; ‘Coffee shops on the premises of the University’).

All of the aforesaid is by no means an exaggeration.  It is indeed true that when, in the past, the need arose, for example, to recruit teachers from another faculty, there were almost always some sorts of hurdles:  the dean’s unwillingness to be receptive to such a request; the unpreparedness of the teachers from another faculty to understand why such a programme was needed, as alien as it was to their faculty; the problems of working together as a team, due to differences in their working style and the way they got paid; the lack of a unified approach to the teaching process; and so on (On the Way To a Unified University:  Vice-Rectors for Areas of Study). 

Now, in order to establish interdisciplinary programmes, specific task forces are organised, and they include experts from different fields of knowledge and programme tracks.  A representative of the Educational Programmes Department usually becomes involved for the purposes of consulting and formatting all developments.  There is no question that this makes it possible to produce a commonly shared concept and the essential elements of the programme, but also to draw up all of the documentation that is needed at once.  An interdisciplinary programme that has been developed by the task force is sent for appraisal by experts to several academic and methodological commissions, and also for external appraisal to representatives of professional associations and potential employers.  It is only after analysis and discussion of the experts’ review that the academic and methodological documentation is approved and a new interdisciplinary programme is launched. 

At the present time, work on creating a single electronic base for all of the premises and the research equipment at the University is nearing completion.  For five years now, an electronic timetable has been in place at the University, which makes it possible to use all of the University’s resources more effectively and to monitor the entire educational process in one fell swoop (St Petersburg University E-Services in Education: Past and Present).  Without this, it used to be almost impossible to launch any interdisciplinary academic programmes – the system functioned only thanks to the Herculean efforts of isolated enthusiasts – but now we can plan out such projects in an orderly way.

Indeed, in recent years, the most diverse personnel, information, material, administrative and other resources have been used not only when launching interdisciplinary programmes but practically all academic programmes.  This is our prime competitive edge and security for the success of our graduates.  Likewise, the unity of all resources at the University is our security and the necessary precondition for creating and launching interdisciplinary programmes.

Here are some examples of successful programmes that are especially popular among prospective students:

  • Hydrological Hazards: From Monitoring to Decision-Making
  • Physical Oceanography and Bioproductivity of Ocean and Seas (PHOBOS)
  • Laws (with advanced study of the Chinese language and the law of the PRC)

How many weeks or months does it take to develop such a programme?  And how long did it use to take?

The time it takes for such work may vary, but usually, once all the members of a task force are ready to work full speed ahead and as a team, no more than three or four months goes by before a programme has been developed and appraised by the experts.  I need to stress that the timeframe may also vary depending on whether or not the programme is being developed in a field of study (programme track) already among the educational activities the University is currently licensed to practice.  If not, it will need to be licensed before it can be launched, and that might take several months.  In the past, this sort of work could take years.  And all too often, initiatives to establish interdisciplinary programmes simply came to naught, because it was impossible to overcome the narrow-minded approach. 

Who takes the initiative to start up an interdisciplinary programme?  Teachers?  Directors and deans?  Members of an academic and methodological commission?  Students?  Employers?

The ideas to develop such programmes can spring up either as a result of new needs that arise in an objective manner or upon the initiative of client-employers and teachers, due to new research findings, and so on.  For example, the study of the Arctic region, which has been developing rapidly in recent times, has encouraged the launching of new programmes that deal with the relevant issues.  The development of economic relations with China and the high demand for experts in the Chinese economy, legal system and language have brought about the emergence of corresponding programmes.  The idea of developing the programme ‘The Lawyer in the Field of the Financial Market’ arose as a result of our cooperation with the banking community, and we are only too glad that our partners at Gazprombank came forward with the initiative not only to actively participate in carrying out the programme by holding workshops and conducting practical training, but also by offering material incentives.  It is important to note that the rector determined long ago that, when designing a programme, we should be guided by the demands of the job market and requirements of employers.  It is clear that we should prepare students so that they can quickly find a good job and begin to develop professionally immediately after they receive their diplomas.  This is one of the main benchmarks of the teaching at the University and the quality of the education that students receive.

In 2016, on instructions from the rector, some engineering programmes were designed, and in 2017, some digital economy programmes.  During the admissions period in 2017, these new interdisciplinary programmes, with engineering components, were launched:

During the admissions period in 2018, these new interdisciplinary programmes, with engineering components, were launched:

During the admissions period in 2018, these new interdisciplinary programmes, with digital components, were launched:

Since 2016, on instructions from the rector, some interdisciplinary academic programmes with advanced study of Oriental languages (Chinese and Japanese) have been developed.  These are some of the programmes that were launched during the admissions period in 2017:

What possibilities are open to graduates who have been studying in an interdisciplinary programme as opposed to a regular graduate?  For example, someone who has completed the programme ‘Laws (with advanced study of the Chinese language and the law of the PRC)’ – are they simply an expert in Chinese law?  Or something more?

Interdisciplinary programmes are set up in response to a demand for experts in the field of academic or scientific research, in various fields of the job market or for specific employers.  So, it is important that the graduate of an interdisciplinary programme realise what the advantages of such a programme are.  For example, the ability to carry out research in biology making use of information technologies (the Bioinformatics programme).  Or to practise law, being familiar with the legal system of China and having a good command of the Chinese language, and work in Russia on projects with the Chinese business community.  And the shortage of such experts can clearly be felt, considering the boom in cooperation with the PRC, which is already on such a scale that is hard to compare it with that of any other country.  It has to be said that being proficient in Chinese and in Chinese law is a must if you want to be sought after in such a business, to grow successfully and to climb the career ladder.  And so forth.

Apparently, there are interdisciplinary programmes at both the undergraduate and the master’s levels.

Yes, interdisciplinary degree programmes can be established at all the levels of higher education (from the secondary professional up to the doctoral).  Today, however, the highest demand for the interdisciplinary approach is at the master’s level. 

At St Petersburg University, for example, these interdisciplinary master’s programmes have been set up:  Mathematical Modelling in Problems of the Natural Sciences, Applied Mathematics and Computer Science in Problems of Medical Diagnosis, Applied Mathematics and Computer Science in Problems of Digital Control, Cognitive Studies, Complex Systems in Nature and Society, Mediation, Educational Management in the Field of Philology, and others. 

Over the past three years, 34 new interdisciplinary degree programmes have been started up, at both the undergraduate and master’s levels:

What comes next?  What are the prospects for developing interdisciplinarity at the University?

The interdisciplinary approach in academics and education is in many ways a response to current market demands.  We are going to develop such programmes in those cases when such a call can clearly be felt.  It is difficult to predict how many of these programmes there will be.  So, the answer is simple:  as many as are needed.