“Every student in this university” will take one – what are the new Industry and Community Project Units?

A look ahead into the future of teaching at USyd

The introduction of the Industry and Community Project Units (ICPUs) in semester one this year signalled sweeping changes to the university curricula. The plans were devised to ensure that graduates adapt quickly to the ‘Future of Work’, a horizon all times fast-approaching.

To facilitate adjustment, Pro Vice-Chancellor Richard Miles wants “every student in this university” to take an ICPU. From only two pilot programs last year, 31 units now offer all undergraduates from 3rd year onwards the opportunity to “take on real-world industry, community and entrepreneurship projects.” In fostering skills that universities have consistently overlooked, the programs take big steps in certain right directions. They require that students from different disciplines work together by providing a common goal, one that cannot be solved without cooperation. Given the revulsion that usually accompanies group work within one’s own faculty, the positive reception of ICPUs in their first semester was a considerable achievement.

Tertiary education has been moving in this direction for some time. Miles commended “newer universities” who have provided “work-integrated learning” for “many, many decades.” Swinburne University introduced the first postgraduate degree in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and added 100 new courses this year. Over half—like ‘Being Change Adaptable’ and ‘Principles of Leadership’—are business-related. Miles had been watching them closely, as, perhaps, were others; ‘Leading and Influencing Business’ and ‘Future of Business’ are new core Business units.

The public ranks ‘high-tech skills’ and ‘creative approaches’ to problem-solving as the lowest priorities.

The Australian Department of Industry and Science recently made education “Imperative 1” to “respond to the changing nature of work”. This imperative requires STEM subjects and other “21st-century” competencies like digital skills and entrepreneurialism. Given the perceived difficulty of STEM subjects, “student mindsets” are a concern, as they “have a greater impact on student performance than any other factor”. Thankfully, “industry can play a significant role in demonstrating to students the career benefit of a STEM education”.

Industry has played a significant role in developing these doctrines, central to which is the premise that social progress is a question of perfecting the human and non-human resources at their disposal. “The workplace and its demands are changing” claims The Blueprint, published by The Australian Institute for Company Directors.  The fact is “Australian students need a mindset of creating a job for the future, not finding a job of the past”. “Worryingly, the OECD places Australia near the bottom of global performance on industry and higher education collaboration.” To fix this, the Industry Directors will bring forth a “nexus between education and jobs”; a system “geared to producing workers with the appropriate skill set.”

ANU polling shows the public do want tertiary career skilling, and for students to learn to get along with diverse individuals. Contrary to the opinions of company directors, the public ranks ‘high-tech skills’ and ‘creative approaches’ to problem-solving as the lowest priorities.

ICPUs are all group projects. Miles is sceptical of “the cult of the individual” and downplayed the entrepreneurial aspect of the programs. He sees social and technological development as a product of collective effort, telling Honi: “if you go into [the program] as an individual, you won’t do well.” They require you to “work with people who are different from you in a myriad of different ways.”

Each ICPU involves a partnership with an external organisation—philanthropic, government or corporate. Partnerships are chosen and organised by Miles, on most occasions through professional networks. “When you first start these things,” he explained, “you have to find an ‘in’… And when other people see it’s successful you get in through the front door.” The ‘in’ for the AGL partnership was the Chancellor, who acquainted him with the front door: Executive General Manager, Alistair Preston.

Each organisation contributes assets and employees who, in conjunction with an academic supervisor, deliver an ICPU. Each unit touches on a “mega-trend” and partners are asked to “translate it down” to something that affects their organisation directly. Groups in AGL’s project investigated aspects of ‘going off the grid’ for specific suburbs. Others focused on provisioning renewable energy technology to disadvantaged households.

Honi spoke to the academic supervisor for the AGL project — physicist and innovation researcher, Maryanne Large. Large asked the company what they wanted from the program. Creating graduates who could “solve complex problems” and “were comfortable working with people from different backgrounds” came into it. When asked about recruitment, “they didn’t say ‘no’…” But Large thought the “real reason they’re involved is they’re actually interested in the results.”

“In general it’s really expensive for companies to understand what’s happening in the future.” “I think if they really wanted to look at this in detail, they would have to do that themselves. But this is kind of a first pass for them, which highlights some of the issues” they “would need to look into.”

The units were more than a “consultancy from students,” Large thought. But “projects need to be run by the academics” to maintain accountability. Academics know their field, have connections, and can create projects that fit their expertise.

Miles said he wanted “academics involved in negotiations very early on”. He sympathised with the feedback, but highlighted that organisations want to “deal with us as a university”. “There’s a sort of interesting balance that you need to strike… but what you don’t want to do is to stifle people’s individual initiative.” Miles was open to changes looking forward.

Despite her reservations, Large thought “it was a successful partnership.” “I had a very good relationship with the people in AGL. I found them very engaged. They were very helpful to the students; they put them in contact with people that they would not have access to otherwise.” The case studies were multifaceted, with legal and political challenges that required collaborative problem-solving. Students “got a much richer experience because of the involvement of AGL. They had a genuine experience of what it might be like to work in a company. So [AGL] got something, but I think they also gave something in that respect.”

Students also got the opportunity to propose ideas. “8% of Australians suffer from energy poverty, which means they actually have to make choices about paying their electricity bills or eating.” The group assigned this case study suggested that the company “give or heavily subsidise some of these people who are chronically struggling.”

There are no funds or donations exchanged with external partners.

“That’s a really nice opportunity that you have in these systems, if you have strong views about something…  I can’t think of another way where you’d normally be able to do that.”

Honi cannot access the Unit of Study Survey results, which Miles says are “really good.” Ed Henderson, a student from the City Recital Hall unit, “really liked the emphasis placed on group work”, especially being “able to practice negotiation, management and cooperation skills”. It was “refreshing” to “be in a group comprised of students from different faculties.”

He did experience some of the potential drawbacks of ‘interdisciplinarity’. Because seminars involved some “disciplines that were not that teacher’s expertise”, they could be “broad and vague.” The same applied to assessments.

Christopher Ganora, supervisor for the Westmead unit, sought help from other academics to cover this problem. “One of the challenges for me was knowing where to pitch my teaching for students with such a diverse range of academic backgrounds. None of the students were from my faculty so I wasn’t very familiar with any of their curricula. This was also good for me because the students often became the teachers!”

There are no funds or donations exchanged with external partners. “No one’s ever asked us to do anything as a quid pro quo,” Miles declared, “because in the end I would say no.”

Miles discerned that you can’t approach an organisation and ask: “Hello! Would you like to do all our teaching for us?”—it’s crass, not to mention costly. Moreover, “we need to be able to control this; set the agenda. And if you want to set the agenda for something then you’ve got to make sure you’re contributing resources towards it.”

The issue comes down to whether the University can control the agenda when projects are offered to “thousands and thousands of students” conjointly with large corporations. Unless the individual company has a way of recuperating its contributions to the future workforce—difficult as the cohort gets larger and more diverse—the undertaking is unprofitable. After making their “first pass”, ICPU partners will want to sure-up their investment. They will understand that “when you first start these things… you have to find an ‘in’.” And then “you get in through the front door.”