The University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mark Scott, has signed a “memorandum of understanding to collaborate on research projects and learning opportunities” with Tata Consulting Services (TCS), a multi-national information technology consulting conglomerate based in Mumbai.
TCS forms part of the Tata group, and operates 149 locations across 46 countries. It has an estimated net worth of around $175 billion.
The partnership between Professor Scott and TCS Asia-Pacific President, Girish Ramachandran, was made at the Australia India Leadership Dialogue in New Delhi, where Professor Scott has represented the University this week.
“This partnership will open up opportunities for our students and researchers,” he said.
According to a statement by the University, the conference had discussions focusing on cybersecurity and AI, as well as global talent recruitment skills and mobility.
TCS is best known for a scandal which made international news when they allegedly stole thousands of files containing confidential information from health record software company Epic Systems, while consulting for Kaiser Permanente, a client of Epic’s and the largest managed healthcare groups in the United States, in 2011.
TCS was contracted to provide technology-information consulting to Kaiser, who needed assistance in rolling out Epic’s health record software. Despite strict agreements around what information TCS would have access to, a TCS employee falsely identified himself to Epic as a Kaiser employee, which gave access to a suite of sensitive information TCS were intended to be restricted from.
Epic sued Tata in 2014 on the grounds that TCS used the information to develop their own competing software, Med Mantra — they were awarded US$940 million by a jury (later reduced to $420 million). In 2016, Tata continued to maintain they “did not misuse or derive any benefit from downloaded documents from Epic System’s user-web portal”.
TCS has made news more recently for ending a staff pay increase being awarded at one year of service, instead requiring staff to wait until the calendared annual pay rise following their one year mark — effectively leaving many staff without incremental wage increases for close to two years. This move was justified by TCS on the grounds that employees are already coming in at “high salaries”. Entry level salaries for TCS employees in India are estimated to be around AUD $6000-12,000. The salary of the company’s CEO is around AUD $4.728 million. The decision has come under fire from NITES, the union representing workers at TCS.
“Tata group is appreciated & applauded for the philanthropy and corporate social activities,” they said in a statement. “In reality at the ground level the Tata employees are being exploited for financial gains.”
This also comes following scrutiny over delays to variable compensation (or performance-based payments) earlier in the year. Given such issues, it’s unsurprising that in June 2022, TCS reported a staff turnover rate of 19.7 per cent for the twelve months prior.
Ongoing ethical issues like these should raise alarm bells for students — the University has indicated they “share a passion for innovation and a vision for a sustainable future” with Tata, viewing the partnership as an opportunity for “hands-on” and “international learning,” such as “internships, graduate employment and professional development.” We can expect to see “collaboration in digitisation and technology [and] educational content.”
The agreement comes as part of a trend emerging in the University’s Sydney in 2032 10-year strategic plan, which sees a renewed focus on external partnerships, and reinforces a move away from the traditional, academia-focused model of the Australian university — something more realistic when universities are comfortably funded with public money — and towards one which relies on the funds of external business partners.
This might not sound concerning on paper, but as partnerships like these emerge, it’s important they’re scrutinised; one of the key aspiring outcomes of the 2032 strategy is to foster an environment where “organisations… advocate for and fund our work, and testify that we are a partner of choice due to the… mutually beneficial nature of our partnerships.”
An externally focused university is not inherently problematic, but who we are mutually benefiting has the potential to be.