How USyd turned a compulsory unit into free labour

One of USyd's most famous units of study has some serious ethical implications.

Compulsory Open Learning Environment units are well known to most students completing degrees at USyd. Those enrolled in designated courses are required to undertake a mandatory 12-credit points of Open Learning Environment units throughout the course of their degree, most of these being worth 2 credit points each.

At the program’s genesis, the University’s 2018 Annual Report states that over 6000 students undertook Open Learning Environment units throughout the year. These figures are set to dramatically rise in 2019.

As one of the only two 6 credit point units which doesn’t involve an overseas exchange, the Digital Influence through Social Media unit (OLES2107) attracts handsome enrolments each year. Structured as an introduction to social media marketing, the University advertises that the unit serves to “highlight developments within this communication space, while also providing a wide range of new and exciting employment contexts that include specific social media communication skills.”

The Unit itself consists of a major group project, in which members must collate a social media marketing campaign for the University’s future O-Week, complete with historical data, theoretical justifications, layout pitches and a detailed calendar of events and media content. Students receive the pitch for the project from the University’s own marketing team, who assure participants that the Unit will give them ‘real-world’ experience and increase their likelihood of future employability.

OLES2107 has been notorious for epitomising the pitfalls of group-work projects, with students left to their own bearings to coordinate major projects with very little guidance offered by lecturers or assigned ‘mentors’. With four compulsory in-person lectures throughout the semester, which attempt to shed a light on contemporary marketing theory, the Unit essentially revolves around the detail applied to students’ O-Week marketing campaigns.

University staff have long heralded Open Learning Environment units as a contemporary progression from traditional tertiary academia towards more ‘hands on’ skill development, justified as a necessity for all entering into today’s workforce. However, the supposed  ‘real-world’ experience offered by the OLES2107 unit appears to benefit the University by imposing these units on fee-paying students.

With each of the enrolled students having to pitch a hypothetical O-Week marketing campaign before the commencement of group work, the University’s marketing department, who organise the unit, are left with thousands of detailed resources at their fingertips. Throughout the course, students are offered no information regarding the rights or claims they have over their own work. The unit is also exclusively offered in Semester 2, which flows on nicely to coincide with the upcoming O Week of the following year.

Whilst all these facets can be justified under the guise of ‘work experience’, the context which the unit emerges from raises some particular ethical concerns. As the quickest means to complete the compulsory OLE units, the University has created the perfect storm by  funnelling students through both the OLES2107 unit and its sister course Writing for the Digital World (OLES2129). The latter unit requires students to write, design and publish an entire Wikipedia page on an undocumented topic, marketed to be providing skills in academic referencing and encyclopaedic writing. Both these units consequently involve undertaking ‘real-world’ projects, which benefit corporations despite being marketed through the benefits they possess for paying students.

The University’s 2018 Annual Report reveals that the University spent over $10 million on marketing in 2017 and 2018, an act which has been deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). As Australian universities increasingly utilise Orientation Week as a competitive marketing scheme it would be well within the interests of USyd to utilise as much labour in their campaign as possible, paid or unpaid.

The lack of transparency provided to students, and the convenience for plagiarism within this context is counterintuitive to the ‘real world’ experience that the unit advertises. Rather than increasing employability, the University is generating its own internal labour through a compulsory system of carefully marketed units.

The extent to which plagiarism has occurred in the past is unknown, as is whether the Unit’s 2020 coursework will be more transparent. However, it’s safe to say that the University has truly created the perfect ploy to exploit the tertiary system to their benefit through the OLE system.