The University of Sydney profits from outsourcing work to private education operators

Students, paying tens of thousands of dollars for a nebulous product, and teachers, stripped away from the research that is normally the lifeblood of an academic career and in increasingly precarious work, inevitably suffer from these partnerships.

In 2019, the University of Sydney first partnered with 2U, the parent company of private online education provider EdX. They renewed, and expanded, this agreement in early 2022. Upon doing so, Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott said that the partnership with 2U provided the required “flexibility” for the University to be “partners in lifelong learning with the community.” The result of this relationship has been an increasingly corporatised educational product: high prices, aggressive recruiting tactics, and a deep lack of clarity as to the true involvement of the University in the teaching and development of courses — the defining characteristics of the student experience. 

The first courses offered by EdX, in collaboration with USyd, were short courses billed as bootcamps. These were initially in coding and cybersecurity, with the parties adding a fintech (financial technology) bootcamp in 2021.

These courses cost over $13,000 for part-time study over 24 weeks (the advertised price is $12,250, excluding GST). The courses justify this by making claims as to “preparing [students] for the in-demand industries of web development, cybersecurity, or fintech.” The professional value of the courses is the main selling point of the programs, with students promised career help and access to corporate partners. 

The price of these courses alone is concerning. The split between the University of Sydney and 2U is not publicly available, but the fact that operating the course is in both parties’ financial interest indicates that the price is significantly higher than the cost of delivery. That 2U can operate the program, pay USyd for using its branding, and record a profit (it is a private, profit-oriented enterprise) suggests that students are unnecessarily reaching into their pockets for educational experiences. This fundamentally conflicts with any vision of education which doesn’t solely view knowledge as a tradable commodity.

Beyond this, students signing up for the bootcamps are subject to aggressive marketing tactics. The only way in which you can sign up for these courses is to provide your personal contact information to EdX. One prospective student who spoke to Honi said that upon filling out this expression of interest, they were called within three minutes. EdX then called them again five more times in an attempt to sell them on the course. This form of advertising seems built into this University teaching model: in exchange for the University providing its branding to legitimise the course for EdX, EdX aggressively advertises the courses to provide revenue for itself, and by extension the University.

Perhaps this would all make more sense if this was a product, designed and taught by USyd academics, and that EdX was merely the means by which the University could, as it claims, “expand access to these in-demand careers.” But USyd has a dubious level of involvement in the bootcamps beyond lending its name, and thus legitimacy as an institution, to the program.

The short-courses EdX provides are sold as “bootcamp[s] at the University of Sydney designed to…” Concerningly, the use of the passive voice in the description “designed to” leaves it unclear who designed the course. 

The way USyd and EdX describe the bootcamps — suggesting they were designed by USyd academics by emphasising EdX’s “collaboration” with the University without explicitly saying this — is too vague for it to be clear to students that this is not a USyd designed product. A 2U spokesperson told Honi that for the bootcamps, “EdX provides the … curriculum development and upkeep.” The University merely “review[s], edit[s], and approve[s] the curriculum.” If only that was made clear on the USyd bootcamp website… 

Looking at EdX’s courses more generally indicates the concerning way that the programs are billed as collaborations with individual universities. EdX offers online coding bootcamps at four Australian universities. Honi could not discern a difference in the way EdX described each coding bootcamp on its website, beyond USyd being called “the coding bootcamp” and the others called “coding bootcamp.” It appears from this that EdX runs one common coding bootcamp — perhaps with minor university-specific alterations — assigning a different university’s label to each, depending on the way that course was sold to students. This is not made clear on the universities’ various websites.

Moreover, EdX sells its bootcamps as offering “online classes led by trainers who are fully vetted by the university.” These are not USyd academics. They are certainly not academics with 40:40:20 tenure. If not development, nor teaching, USyd has almost no role in running these programs, excluding “vetting” educators and stamping students’ certificates. That the University offers its label to such courses is a blatant commodification of its reputation as a reputable educational institution. 

The extent to which USyd is involved in the collaboration should be made clear to prospective students, given the exorbitant fees they pay to obtain a “Certificate of Completion” with USyd’s name on it.

Beyond the bootcamps are a series of online Masters Degrees including the Masters of Data Science (Online) run as a joint venture between 2U and USyd. These courses began after the renewal of the parties’ relationship in 2022.

The University stresses that they “retain full academic control of the … programs, determining the curriculum content and admissions standards, with all unit development and teaching undertaken by the University’s academic staff.” For these degrees, “2U … provide[s] the technology platform, educational design and production, student and faculty support, and marketing and recruitment services,” according to the University.

This means that these degrees appear to actually be designed and taught by USyd academics. However, The Guardian Australia exposed, earlier this year, the negative experiences of University staff who teach these programs. An anonymous academic at USyd told that outlet that the outsourcing arrangements at the University were almost “universally hated” by academics. The academic justified this by saying the University does not treat work designing courses as part of an academics’ teaching load, despite the work that goes into designing the courses beyond. The overwork of academics because of high teaching loads has been a key reason for the National Tertiary Education Union’s ongoing industrial action campaign at USyd.

There are broader problems regarding the way the University teaches these masters degrees. Academics who design these Masters courses have very limited control over the materials they produce and how they are used by the University after they are produced. USyd possesses intellectual property rights over most content produced by staff in the course of their employment. Worse, the University did not explicitly confirm to The Guardian that staff teaching these degrees had PhDs in the field they taught. (The University of Sydney did not respond to Honi’s request for comment.)

Like the bootcamps, 2U’s involvement in these degrees is obscured by the University. In no part of the University’s slick website selling the postgrad online programs, nor in course descriptions, is EdXs’s involvement made clear. This is true even where such a disclosure would be natural. For example, in a section about the online learning experience, the University brags that its “Master of Data Science translates seamlessly to an online setting,” but it neglects to mention that this experience is entirely the domain of EdX. Rather, the University includes an illusion to its project partner, U2, at the footer of its webpage; it is sandwiched in between the “Contact Us” and “Privacy Policy” links. This contributes to a broader portrait of the less than transparent way the University advertises its EdX run programs.

The University of Sydney’s collaboration with 2U and EdX is one of the most blatant manifestations of the increasingly corporatised state of higher education in this country. It strips teaching from research and builds in aggressive marketing and recruitment as necessary features of the system. Students become “course participants”, and academics become “trainers” in this corporate world — the pursuit of knowledge is replaced by the pursuit for a “certificate of completion.” Universities are no longer agents in the democratisation of knowledge, but corporate partners, service providers, and curriculum manufacturers. 

Students, paying tens of thousands of dollars for a nebulous product, and teachers, stripped away from the research that is normally the lifeblood of an academic career and in increasingly precarious work, inevitably suffer in this. Evidently, this is of little significance for the University of Sydney.