Spaghetti towers and OLEs: USyd’s obsession with “employability”

Why is building towers out of pasta being passed off as tertiary education?

In a recent tutorial in ‘Interdisciplinary Impact’, a compulsory subject under the new curriculum, this author’s class was made to participate in the ‘Marshmallow Challenge.’ Most commonly found at soul-crushing business conferences and in kindergarten classes, the task requires groups to construct the tallest possible tower out of spaghetti sticks and tape. A marshmallow is then impaled on the pinnacle of the tower in an apparent sacrifice to academic rigour.

The new Sydney Undergraduate Experience was launched in 2017. The announcement on the University website hailing the new changes was written by a Media and PR Adviser. It was accompanied by a listicle proffering the “Top 5 things to know about the Sydney Undergraduate Experience” (clearly ‘curriculum’ is a tired term). That an historic reworking of the undergraduate curriculum at arguably Australia’s most prestigious university was justified by way of listicle raises questions about the academic integrity of the new curriculum and its underlying purpose.

David Palfreyman, of the UK’s Office for Students, argues that “true higher education is not…about engagement with some latest silly whim or obsession…it is not about feeding employers with what they may short-sightedly see as fit-for-purpose graduates”. In its move away from academic disciplines with an established methodology and history of rigorous scholarship towards faddish ‘Open-Learning Environment’ and ‘Interdisciplinary’ units, the new curriculum sacrifices many of the traditional tenets of a university education in a quest for marketability.

Sydney University’s primary function is as an academic institution. The education provided by its academic staff should imbue its students with skills such as inquiry, curiosity and independent thought. It is these qualities which employers find attractive in university graduates.

The new curriculum reverses this equation, seeking to adapt to the ever-changing desires of employers. The page for Interdisciplinary Projects, now a compulsory subject, is filed under ‘Careers’ on the University website. It advertises that the subject “looks great on your resume. It demonstrates your practical and collaborative skills to potential employers” and will “give you an advantage when applying for jobs.” There is no mention of any academic requirements. In this author’s own experience of an Interdisciplinary unit, a lack of reading was trumpeted as an advantage, while tutorials consisted of TedTalks, spaghetti towers and post-it note allocation. This elevation of employability over academia should be concerning for the University, whose academic instruction should be, in and of itself, attractive to employers without requiring obsequiousness to corporate sensibilities.

In conversation with Honi, two academic staff from an interdisciplinary subject again used employability as justification for the new curriculum. It was argued that, as new technologies and industries emerge, universities must prepare their students for a life in which traditional academic skills are less valued. Inevitably, we are returned to the perennial debate as to the purpose of tertiary institutions. Is it to feed employers with “fit-for-purpose graduates,” or should it be concerned with a broader education of the mind? This calculus will change between faculties. But in a liberal arts setting, where the purpose of education is not vocational, the imposition of mandatory subjects sits uncomfortably with the freedom of inquiry that such a course of study demands.

This newfound focus on ‘employability’ can be seen in one of three ways: as a tacit admission of failings in the University’s regular academic instruction, as a bow to the demands of employers or as a mere marketing exercise. Given Sydney University was rated first in Australia for graduate employability by QS before the new curriculum, we may discount the first possibility. Therefore, if the new Experience exists for reasons other than improving academic inquiry, rigour and performance, it is arguable that marketing imperatives have overtaken academic instruction as a prime motivator of undergraduate learning.

Auden wrote of Oxford:

“O in these quadrangles where wisdom honours herself

Does the original stone merely utter that praise

Shallowly, or utter a bland hymn of comfort

The founder’s equivocal blessing

On all who worship success”

Sydney University markets itself on prestige. This prestige does not derive from sandstone and quadrangles, but rather from a centuries-long academic tradition. The new Sydney Undergraduate Experience merely “utters a bland hymn of comfort” to that tradition, prioritising the demands of those who “worship success” at the expense of academic integrity.