How ZHdK is reinventing studying

Agile project management: Michèle Graf at a Major-Minor-Forum with members of ZHdK. Photograph: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

Art education, design, film, fine arts, music, dance, theatre and transdisciplinarity: these disciplines are studied and taught under one roof at the Toni-Areal, the campus of Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). The close proximity of disciplines at ZHdK is unique, productive and allows for much more. The major-minor study model is designed to enable students to move more freely among course offerings. Project manager Michèle Graf discusses the future of studying and why “T-Shaped Professionals” have an advantage in professional life.


Lea Dahinden: What is the major-minor model about?
Michèle Graf: By introducing the major-minor model, we intend to exploit ZHdK’s potential even better. Ever since relocation to the Toni-Areal, students, teaching staff, researchers and guests have been meeting under one roof. ZHdK is one of the few arts universities where disciplines exist in such close proximity to each other. However, obstacles to cooperation across disciplinary boundaries or in terms of international mobility still persist. This is precisely where the major-minor model comes in: It aims to make offerings more permeable and to expand students’ options.

What might these options look like?
Let’s take a game design major who wants to choose a minor: They could minor in serious games in their core area of study, use the minor in virtual production to acquire skills in another discipline or opt for immersive arts as an overarching, transversal minor. If our negotiations are successful, students could also attend the minor in computer science at another university.

Why do we need this model?
Studying at ZHdK ought to offer students both more in-depth training and broad experience for the future. The coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown how versatile artists, designers or educators need to be. In the professional world there is talk of “T-Shaped Professionals.” These are people who have both in-depth and broad knowledge. At an arts university, crossing and questioning disciplinary boundaries also belong to contemporary practice in the arts and design.

Isn’t there a danger of studying “a little bit of everything, but nothing properly”?
Our credo is: No compromises with quality! No other European arts university emphasises permeability as much as we do. Our students spend a lot of time in their majors. That’s their disciplinary home and mainstay. But pursuing one or several minors offers them the opportunity to move away from their core subject or to delve deeper. Learning to deal with a lot of unfamiliar things as a student is an advantage for professional life.

How do I choose the right minor?
If students wish to specialise, they choose a minor in their major field of study. If they intend to acquire the basics in another discipline, they choose a minor in another field of study. If they are interested in doing a course elsewhere, they can choose a minor at a partner university. We will soon be starting negotiations. We also envisage a greater opening of Zurich as a higher education hub. Finally, they may also opt for a transversal minor if they wish to gain an overarching perspective. Transversal minors are open to all students and provide insight into ZHdK’s core spheres of competence. Topics range from sustainability through research to entrepreneurship.

The major-minor model affects many areas of ZHdK. What ends up on your desk?
The project involves many changes and raises questions across ZHdK. For example, our workshop managers are worried that inexperienced students might injure themselves. HR has asked whether new executive positions will be created, while lecturers fear that they might lose their teaching load. The time pressure is a challenge for everyone, because the project is running alongside day-to-day operations.

How do you deal with all these questions, concerns and wishes?
I try to keep track of things and to practise the principles of agile project management. For instance, I divide the work into manageable packages. We have strong project teams, which are firmly anchored in the departments and institutes and voice their needs. It is important to me to involve as many people as possible. We regularly organise forums where everyone can participate in discussions.

What stage is the project currently at?
We reached an important milestone at the beginning of 2020 by completing our work on the rough concepts. Once the structure is defined, we can concentrate on content. We are aiming to define course offerings in the first half of 2021. We hope to gain important insights from a project simulation: How do students make their way around our platform? What information do they look for first? Which offerings do they choose? Do they miss anything?

What subject would you choose if you studied again?
Well, I’m a historian, not an artist. I would want to put my own discipline into a larger context. Maybe I would choose something from design or be interested in writing. I would certainly also be attracted to studying independently of any specific location, to benefit from a network of partner universities, for example, in Hong Kong or London.

With its major-minor model, ZHdK is breaking new ground in art and design education. The new study model combines the content of various disciplines, makes the entire range of courses offered at ZHdK more easily accessible to students and issues degree certificates providing demonstrable evidence of student achievement. The new study model, whose launch is planned for 2022–2023, will sharpen ZHdK’s unique profile as a permeable, interdisciplinary university oriented towards new professional fields.
Michèle Graf ( is Head of Accreditation and Quality Development at ZHdK. She has been responsible for the major-minor project since 2018.
Lea Dahinden is a project manager at ZHdK University Communications.
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