It is time to scrap traditional academic departments


Perhaps our academic departments aren’t as useful or even practical as they seem. We’re used to them, they’re certainly convenient, and we sometimes cling to them to offer protection, identity and a physical location – but they can be more of a barrier than a benefit.

One of our challenges as academics is that we’re increasingly looking for new intellectual homes for ideas that don’t always fit into the traditional departmental structures. Department titles can also be meaningless when it comes to students starting out in higher education. They look at courses but naturally have little understanding or affinity with the standard structures of departments, colleges, faculties, subject groups and other institutional structures. Why would they? So there’s no obvious value there.

Standard group structures often do little other than serve our own internal needs for management and governance – which is fine in administrative terms. But they also set up both physical and psychological walls, and are the basis for division rather than collaboration. In the current landscape, for example, both the broad departments and individual research centres act as independent entities – often appearing as the two opposite ends of the same continuum.

Critically, imposed structures aren’t compatible with the push towards more cross-disciplinary course development. These are the kinds of necessary new programmes that better suit industry in terms of developing more job-ready students, and can be a useful indication of innovation and flexibility in the sector. Departments are an immediate and sometimes immovable obstacle when it comes to discussions over resourcing and financing cross-disciplinary developments.

The borders between teaching and research are seen and felt as a barrier, something to be overcome, or at least worked around, with the potential at worst for a sense of hostility and predatory competition. Research councils, of course, rarely fund single disciplinary research anymore, and are looking for the broader view and sharper insights that can come from the intersection or collision between multiple disciplines.

Structures and labels are important for bringing order to confusion, providing direction and purpose. But all artificially constructed boundaries will benefit from a close examination with fresh eyes from time to time, from looking at their limitations. Departments as we traditionally know them are quickly becoming one of those ideas.

Bringing groupings together in new forms will be a way to help HE better face up to the challenges of the coming decade, and make sector offerings remain distinctive, relevant and built around our central purpose in terms of real-world engagement.

One way forward would be to orientate ourselves around areas of research where there is a strong interconnection between research done and the courses being delivered. Under this approach, research centres – based around interdisciplinary expertise and collaborations – adopt taught courses and then provide an ongoing feed of co-created knowledge to make them distinctive and relevant. Immediately, the structure encourages greater staff and student co-operation and momentum towards interdisciplinary working as the norm. Here there is no continuum but rather, an entity where both teaching and research feed off each other.

We’re learning how this might work at Bradford. In the Faculty of Management and Law we are restructuring ourselves around research, and removing departmental subject group structures as we look to distinguish ourselves against the competition. This means everyone is given a research identity (and environment to be inspired), including those who have traditionally been less research active.

Teaching-focused staff will be able to draw ideas, inspiration and motivation from those immersed in their research, and in the other direction, teaching excellence will be spread and gain recognition through impactful relevant research that is enhanced through co-creation. In this way, we hope that all new courses will be drawn from our research and teaching strengths, capabilities and capacity and help to ensure that we have the right people, in the right place and with the right skills, to deliver a new portfolio of excitement for students.

Author Bio: Zahir Irani is dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Bradford.