Polymaths at the London Interdisciplinary School plan to teach universities a thing or two

Stroll up Whitechapel Road in east London, past Jack the Chipper and Hichki Mumbai Kitchen, and you could easily miss the most radical new university to open in decades. The first hand-selected students started this week at an incubator for…

Stroll up Whitechapel Road in east London, past Jack the Chipper and Hichki Mumbai Kitchen, and you could easily miss the most radical new university to open in decades.

The first hand-selected students started this week at an incubator for 21st-century polymaths — London Interdisciplinary School (LIS). They beat intense competition for a place on its inaugural course: a bachelor of arts and sciences in real-world problems.

Hidden inside the discreet façade of two Victorian townhouses is the embodiment of change to the university system that began almost five years ago. It is on the site of the Salvation Army’s former headquarters, the People’s Mission Hall, but is now home to a new type of reforming organisation.

The London Interdisciplinary School is located in two renovated Victorian townhouses in Whitechapel
The London Interdisciplinary School is located in two renovated Victorian townhouses in Whitechapel
TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD POHLE
Jo Johnson, then universities minister, was the architect of legislation that gave new institutions their own degree-awarding powers after he accused traditional universities of acting like a “cartel” and “burly bouncers deciding who should be let into the club”.

The school and the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (Nmite), which opened in Hereford this month, are a new breed of university.

They aim to shatter the division between arts and sciences and challenge centuries-old methods of teaching involving large lectures, smaller tutorials and minimal contact time on some courses. Nmite has taken 27 students, 11 of whom do not have any maths or science A-levels, usually a prerequisite for engineering degrees.

The 66 freshers at LIS who started this week were picked after two rigorous interviews of 700 applicants. Their A-level results range from none to four A* grades, and 30 have at least three A grades at A-level. Twenty are from deprived backgrounds or are leaving care.

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Ed Fidoe, chief executive of the university, says those making up the founding cohort come from a wide range of academic and social backgrounds but are unified by their curiosity, desire to combine disciplines, motivation to embrace an academically rigorous course and desire to make their own impact through tackling complex problems such as climate change and inequality.

Eva Fisher, 24, has A-levels in French, film and photography, while Gavin De Silva, 27, has A levels in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry. They are on the same course — a BASc in interdisciplinary problems and methods — and will have personalised coaching to plug the gaps in their skills.

This term they will tackle inequality. Next term it will be sustainability, and in the third term their own free-choice essay. Next year they could analyse artificial intelligence or ethics.

De Silva said: “I like the idea of learning around problems and learning skills to make the world a better place. My A-levels being all in science and maths was not personal choice; I’m also interested in history and literature.”

The 66 freshers at LIS were picked after two rigorous interviews of 700 applicants
The 66 freshers at LIS were picked after two rigorous interviews of 700 applicants
TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD POHLE
Fisher said: “I’m interested in so many different things and I couldn’t pick just one subject to study for three years. University is such an investment but just having a degree doesn’t mean you will have a job at the end of it.”

Throughout each term, students will tackle the “problems” by studying concepts and theories from different academic disciplines. They will also learn a wide variety of methods — across arts and sciences — to investigate and produce solutions, including coding, analysing numbers and clear writing skills.

Sitting in the building’s daylight-flooded attic, renovated with triangular tables, dangling plants, “writing” walls and the smell of fresh paint, the students ooze enthusiasm. Teachers include Waqas Ahmed, founder of the DaVinci Network and author of The Polymath , who has a BSc in economics and postgraduate degrees in international history and neuroscience.

Before running the LIS, Fidoe was a manager at the consultants McKinsey, which he left to co-found one of the first free schools in 2012. He also used to run a theatre company.

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He said: “At A-level, students have to ditch subjects that they love and that means you stop doing art or drama. Students have to tell the story that they’ve always wanted to just do science, but for so many that’s just not true.”

“There are also still access problems for some students to university and the reliance on A-levels, so it felt like there was a big opportunity to try and change the ancient system”.

Students applied to the university rather than through Ucas. Admissions tutors gathered bespoke information looking at each applicant’s background, with no minimum grades bar.

“We interviewed them twice — one was an academic interview and one was more about their attitudes, where we assess them on what they’re curious about, why they’re motivated,” Fidoe said. “We’ve invested a huge amount of time in this, we spent hundreds of hours deliberating. We made academic offers that were bespoke for their context and we gave some additional tasks to do like to write an essay, if we were a little bit worried about their English.”

Too many traditional degrees leave students taking individual modules without understanding the connection between them, he added.

The small institution has big ambitions. It can house up to 300 students and the founders say they could take over neighbouring buildings or move in a few years so it can teach more than 1,000 undergraduates. Next year LIS is launching a masters in arts and science. This year’s students who fear that their maths is not up to scratch can drop into the on-site Quantum Café for support and coaching in a relaxed setting.

The inspiration for the course was the realisation that the world’s biggest problems need an interdisciplinary approach. Students learn quantitative and qualitative methods such as survey design or graphic research, statistical analysis or coding.

Another co-founder is Carl Gombrich, who was a professorial teaching fellow of interdisciplinary education at UCL and who is cautious of the word polymath. “People misunderstand it, they think you have to be Leonardo Da Vinci. For me it’s much more about recognising that most lives these days involve understanding both arts and science.”

At Nmite students learn in studios between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday, 46 weeks a year. That time is a mix of learning from academics, teamwork, independent work, practicals and solving challenges set by industry.

Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, its president and chief executive, said that opening its doors was “one of the most exciting achievements in the history of engineering education”.