What’s critically missing from the Universities Accord report? Transdisciplinarity!

It seems churlish to criticize the Universities Accord report, when so much in it is game-changing. Yet in setting a blueprint for the long-term reform of Australia’s higher education system, there’s a danger that education and research that are not already well established will languish. My particular concern is the future of transdisciplinarity, where there are many promising initiatives and a sense of momentum, but little that’s embedded and secure.

The report highlights key areas that international transdisciplinary research and scholarship have addressed for decades: community engagement, First Nations participation, effective international engagement, and, most critically, being “able to solve complex problems.”

Leaving aside whether complex problems can be “solved,” the report plays scant attention to addressing complex problems, only recognizing this ability as a critical “transferable generic skill” that students must develop (p. 12 and 84) and maintaining that “Every day, governments and industry are working on complex problems. Ideally, they should turn to the research sector for assistance with solving these” (p. 199). That’s it!

So how could the report have better addressed education and research on addressing complex problems and strengthened the future of transdisciplinarity?

First, it could have recognized that there is an international body of transdisciplinary scholarship and research, but that its ongoing development faces significant challenges. Transdisciplinarity is a young field, so that journals to publish in are scarce, resulting in insights being widely dispersed in the literature. There’s no agreed way to catalogue transdisciplinary educational and research concepts, methods and findings, which means it is easier to reinvent them than find and build on what’s gone before. These challenges have led to two contradictory views about transdisciplinarity. One is that it’s too hard. The other is that it’s just common sense.

Second, the report could have recognized that there is identifiable expertise that students can be taught and researchers need to acquire. It requires both book-learning and practical experience. For example, at ANU, we’ve identified six key skill sets:

  1. Acknowledging pluralism: recognizing differences in ways of observing, experiencing and interpreting problems.
  2. Embracing interaction: engaging this diverse array of expertise and perspectives through teamwork, stakeholder engagement and effective communication.
  3. Fostering integration: harnessing the benefits of pluralism and interaction to provide a richer understanding of a problem, and more nuanced options for action.
  4. Focusing on change: making improvements by supporting governments, business and/or civil society organisations in making better decisions, taking into account unknowns and dealing with the complexity of change processes.
  5. Thinking systemically: promoting understanding and action on complex problems that deals with interdependent and interacting parts, feedback and leverage points, and that any way of tackling a problem involves working within artificial boundaries.
  6. Accounting for context: appreciating that which problems are attended to, how problems manifest, and which potential actions are viable depends on historical, political, cultural and other circumstances.

The report could also have recognized that helping students and researchers build this expertise requires major intellectual and financial investments. Again, taking ANU as an example, we are finding that addressing only a small part of this skillset – the development of teamwork competencies – requires a huge effort if it is to be done at a university-wide scale that enables all students to grow their proficiency as they progress through their degrees.

Finally, the report could have recognized the critical institutional barrier to uptake and further development of useful transdisciplinary theories and proven methods. Educators and researchers are already too busy – there’s no room in crowded curricula and research agendas to give the expertise required to tackle complex problems through transdisciplinarity more than scant regard. Time and attention are “zero sum games”. Educators and researchers can’t continually be required to do more and to add more skills. The real challenge is: how can the sector make room for transdisciplinary education and research that tackles complex problems? If we don’t put that question on the agenda for the long-term plan for reform, we are doing the higher education sector and the country a major disservice.


Gabriele Bammer is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) in the ANU College of Health and Medicine at The Australian National University. She is the inaugural president of the Global Alliance for Inter- and Transdisciplinarity (https://itd-alliance.org/) and chair of the “informing research and funding policy” working group of NITRO-Oceania (Network of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research Organisations in the Oceania Region; https://nitro-oceania.net/), which made submissions at each stage of the Accord review process. She curates the popular Integration and Implementation Insights blog and repository (https://i2Insights.org) which makes tools for tackling complex problems accessible.


Bammer, G., Browne, C.A., Ballard, C., Lloyd, N., Kevan, A., Neales, N., Nurmikko-Fuller, T., Perera, S., Singhal, I., van Kerkhoff, L. (2023) ‘Setting parameters for developing undergraduate expertise in transdisciplinary problem solving at a university-wide scale: a case study’ Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 10, 208 (Open access) https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-023-01709-8



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