One step along the production line

Worries about careers threatens to jeopardise the undergraduate experience

USyd likes to tell us they’re the first ranked university in Australia for graduate employability. The desire to preserve this ranking, or perhaps just the integrity of their marketing, saw the University upheave its curriculum in 2018, introducing Industry and Community Projects Units (ICPU) in a bid to develop “career-ready” students from day one. Packaged shinily as the “Sydney Undergraduate Experience”, the units are part of a trend towards the mass-industrialisation of degrees, restructuring to meet the key performance indicators of career-bound graduates.

Universities have a long-standing tradition of academic rigour, encouraging disciplined pursuit of one’s natural curiosity through research and debate. However, there is an increasing expectation that prospective employees in white collar workplaces have a degree, even where a significant amount of learning happens on the job. Such expectations both explain and compound the fact that more people than ever are graduating from university, entrenching unprecedented competition between graduates. Naturally, changes in what’s demanded alter what’s supplied, with both universities and students alike adapting preferences out of survival.

Mixed with funding cuts that increase reliance on philanthropy and corporate support, research grants that are often conditional on bringing benefits to the government’s bottom line, and the pressure of paying back ballooning HECS debts, such trends have shifted students towards vocational study and away from more unapplied academic considerations. And outside the classroom, students are taking on extra curricular activities more than ever before, sacrificing leisure time to pad resumes in time for the whims of the labour market.

Prospective undergraduates USyd are treated to superficial marketing and lofty promises about how their professionally-aligned degrees “prepare [them] for the future.” This branding emphasises “career” as the leading objective of a university education, and with enough repetition can easily be internalised by students. This anxiety cannot be separated from the emphasis placed on careers in our degrees, where vocational concerns set the route people travel, rather than the destination they hope to arrive at.

And it’s not just the rest of our lives that this process threatens to make boring: at a time most mark out for personal development such a myopic focus on employment constrains the freedom and willingness to take risks that are necessary to personal growth. Whereas past students had the freedom to work out who they are, travel the world, and let their friends talk them into having another drink, many students now have neither the time nor insurance to take such risks.

The corporatisation of our curriculum has also bled into the social experience of university. Increasing pressure to differentiate oneself by doing an array of “professional” extracurricular ironically brandishes you the same as the other applicants all vying for the job. There has been a proliferation of professional societies promising exclusive networking events, with newbies, BusinessOne and Australian Wall Street Society, both formed since 2016, joining the ever-growing and prestigious Financial Management Association of Australia (FMAA).

What happened to societies that brought students with mutual interests together? Networking probably isn’t a preferred way for most to spend their time, but as our social landscape becomes punctuated by LinkedIn coffee chats, case competition grinds, and industry networking evenings, little room is left for individual passions. Instead of nurturing genuine friendships, this rat race creates a constellation of professional acquaintanceships that barely broach the depth of the “lifelong friendships” typically sought from the university experience.

The “Sydney Undergraduate Experience” promises “the ability to think critically, collaborate productively and influence the world.” Yet, a university experience that explicitly and implicitly emphasises career development in place of free inquiry and personal growth, threatens to undermine this very goal. And not only does this jeopardise the quality of undergraduate experience, but also ironically diminish our skillset in the work force. Ultimately, I’m left to wonder: how are we supposed to take on the big, bad world when limited to a one-dimensional “career-ist” mentality?