Fostering multidisciplinary collaboration in higher education

The construction of knowledge in Indonesian education has mostly taken shape within disciplinary boundaries. Since primary school, we learn the various subjects in stiffly separated categories. Maths, history, language and sport seem disconnected from each other. The detachment between natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities is formalised throughout high school.

This specialisation is further narrowed when students enrol at universities. We are instructed to concentrate on one major subject. We are told that the more specialised skills we acquire, the more we will be sought after in the jobs market.

Likewise, academic culture is centred on disciplined knowledge, with academic departments classified corresponding to specific fields. Campus politics draw rigid borders between the disciplines and this determines an academic career.

An example of this can be found in an essay by the distinguished Indonesian scholar Professor Melani Budianta in which she talks about how a colleague who is working on interdisciplinary gender studies in indigenous law had her professorship delayed because she was considered neither firmly rooted in law nor sociology.

Research consequentially tends to turn inwards, deepening enquiries within a discipline, valorising linearity and fixed methodological standardisation. This delineation between disciplines often leads to competition for resources among departments, faculties or universities.

Interrelated world

Applied sciences, such as engineering, which provide the 'profitable' skills demanded by industry, tend to triumph while the humanities tend to be in decline everywhere. Data from the Harvard Humanities Project claimed the percentage of humanities degrees has dropped by half since the 1960s. This situation is worsened by funding cuts for research clusters in literature, art and history.

Such specialisation may be an efficient means of generating and advancing knowledge as capital, but in a progressively connected world, all aspects of human life are interrelated and no singular discipline can be exclusively independent.

The world’s crises are increasingly complex and multidimensional and require a social, economic, natural, political and cultural perspective simultaneously. Our shared problems like climate change, inequality and poverty, the digital divide, public healthcare, gender discrimination and terrorism need a comprehensive response. They require the forces of more than any single discipline.

Global challenges require multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary frameworks. A comprehensive approach involves dialogue and cooperation, an emphasis on collaboration, rather than competition, between various institutions. On a broader scale, such an approach could lessen the sectoral egotism which still dominates the organisation of Indonesian bureaucracy, deemed one of the worst in Asia.

But how can we nurture and enhance a multidisciplinary culture in our universities?

It could be normalised through small changes in our practices of knowledge formation. Starting with teaching, lecturers could encourage students to work in teams comprising students from different disciplinary backgrounds since in any major there are usually several minors.

Courses could feature guest lecturers from varied backgrounds who could open up students’ perspectives. Programmes could also provide incentives for students from diverse disciplines to participate in collaborative projects, like research, campaigning or community development.

Academia ought to push the boundaries of disciplines through a focus on global issues, a familiarisation with different approaches and an attempt to look at issues from a variety of worldviews. This will prompt us to begin interdisciplinary dialogues, both in informal discussions with peers and more formal fora like conferences.

Interdisciplinary conference

I recently attended the Indonesia International Conference on Communication. On one panel, there was an architecture researcher who was studying how the design of public space could affect people’s interactions. Her presentation was commented on by a researcher in cultural studies, who gave their input into how the design of public parks in Europe embraces cultural knowledge to promote intercultural understanding among different racial groups.

The conference, organised by the Communication Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia and Perludem (Association for Elections and Democracy), also saw a cross-sectoral collaboration in which academics and NGOs activists joined together to create a forum of multidisciplinary knowledge exchanges. Government and industry figures were also invited to take part.

Similarly, the engagement of scholars with artists and activists is also seen in some cultural activism, from arts installations and cultural festivals to public discussions and workshops. These serve as an alternative mode of knowledge-making that involve different social groups, from students, artists, scientists and policy-makers to local government.

Such initiatives show how the politics of daily life is important in shaping our knowledge and cultural formation. On a parallel note, research findings from the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California stresses that if faculty members are intent on doing multidisciplinary activities, they will find a way, regardless of the structures that exist which might impede this.

In addition to intent, there also needs to be a political willingness to ensure robust and sustainable collaboration. This requires the involvement of government, universities, communities and industries.

This is reflected in Indonesia’s neighbouring countries where multidisciplinary collaboration has flourished. In Thailand, for example, the government actively encourages universities to take a more interdisciplinary approach in Chulalangkorn University. This has resulted in the establishment of cross-curricular learning which allows for the use of research knowledge from a wider range of areas.

In Indonesia, the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, or AIPI, has taken the lead in promoting multidisciplinary collaboration in the country. This government-funded organisation holds an annual symposium on the frontiers of science which gathers and supports scholars who conduct inter-, trans- and multidisciplinary research projects.

Multidisciplinary research projects

But this is not enough. The government has sought to invigorate the role of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI, in managing and coordinating multidisciplinary research projects and collaboration among universities and public institutions to tackle the nation’s challenges.

Within the frame of the ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – community, LIPI should be revitalised to proactively conduct cross-boundary and cross-sectoral partnerships.

A national research agenda for top-priority research issues should be developed and these should be tackled by collaborative research teams led by experts with diverse qualifications. The French model of integrated research endowment through the National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS, could be a good model.

More important is the transformation of higher education institutions. Universities’ main duty is towards solving some of humanity’s most complex problems, not merely churning out potential employees. If education is about overcoming shared problems, we need to be taught to be collaborative because we will quickly realise that we cannot tackle them alone and that we need to cooperate with others.

After all, it is in collaboration, not competition, that true knowledge lies.

Aulia Nastiti is a masters graduate of comparative cultural studies from the University of Lyon 3, and works at the department of communication at Universitas Indonesia as an associate lecturer. The views expressed here are her own.


Thanks for drawing attention to this subject. The 'silo' mentality fostered by education institutions reflects the central place of Critical Thinking, which is 'parts' thinking.

Graham Douglas on the University World News Facebook page