There seems to be general agreement that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will challenge existing institutions to adapt or, if not die, then quietly fade away. But there will also be new opportunities for the nimble and the shrewd to step up and make their mark.

In higher education, as one academic paper has noted, the coming changes “will reduce the subject distance between humanities and social science as well as science and technology [requiring] much more interdisciplinary teaching, research and innovation”.

Time will tell, but one answer to this could be a new kind of university the like of which looks set to take shape in London.

It comes in the form of the proposed London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) championed by its founder, Ed Fidoe, which will open its doors in September 2020 contingent on approval from the Office for Students.

Fidoe and his team are proposing what amounts to a polymath model of student education – “a radical new learning model organised entirely around complex problems that matter to society”.


Tackle the most pressing problems

“Not much is certain for the future of work. But the organisations that will be most successful will be those that tackle the most pressing problems. They’ll need the brightest minds to do this,” says the LIS on its website.

“The problems we face are complex. They don’t respect disciplinary boundaries. We need leaders who can think beyond the limits of traditional subjects, make new connections and find new solutions.”

The LIS team is said to be “a unique combination” of leading academics, entrepreneurs, and educationalists “who have deep expertise in the science of learning, and experience of establishing new institutions … LIS and its interdisciplinary programme is a product of these powerful collaborations”.

Future students will be able to study for a proposed Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree, and will learn “through real-world challenges”.

They will “acquire methods, build networks, and gain the practical experience that ensures you stand out”.

“The framework for the course is simple – start with a problem, break it down to identify and learn the different types of knowledge you’ll need and then learn the methods which mean you can take action.”


Provide students with a political education

However, according to one commentator the proposed university doesn’t go far enough.

In a column in The Guardian, academic philosopher and writer Tom Whyman says a true “polymath education” would not simply be about fostering the skills employers demand – “it would aim to provide students with a political education”.

“The production of knowledge is not just about considering the world as a detached, theoretical object of study: inevitably, it is about judging it morally,” he says.

“An education that combines expertise in the arts and humanities with literacy in science and technology certainly, therefore, seems promising – but if this education is detached from a consideration of the real interests that shape both our world and our knowledge of it, it risks producing mere generalists, who think in ways that are not broad and interconnected but glib and superficial.”

Is he right?