If you’re a third or fourth year USyd student, you’ve probably encountered the Industry and Community Project Unit (ICPU).
Introduced in 2018, 3000-level ICPUs engage students across a range of faculties in semester-long project work with an industry partner. According to their unit overview, ICPUs allow students to “cross disciplinary boundaries”, address “complex” “real-world” problems, and emerge newly pragmatic and employable.
When I commenced my compulsory ICPU this semester, I did so begrudgingly: I was wary of participating in an opaque, corporate exercise informed by one-size-fits-all notions of employability and a deeply unedifying academic approach. The total intellectual vacancy of my Interdisciplinary Impact unit (FASS3999) last year only exacerbated my pessimism.
Interdisciplinarity & building the job-ready graduate
At USyd, the term ‘interdisciplinary’ peppers undergraduate handbooks and promotional material, coalescing with other empty buzzwords like ‘flexible’, ‘dynamic’, and ‘employable’ to describe its graduates.
At first glance, interdisciplinarity is a benign, progressive academic ethos, facilitating enriching exchange between typically siloed areas of study. It only makes sense that fields like environmental science stand to benefit from osmosis with the humanities, and vice versa. In fact, many degrees are naturally quite interdisciplinary.
Within a context of extensive austerity measures however, the University’s appropriation of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is justifiably suspicious.
Indeed, Honi has previously criticised the new interdisciplinarity movement in higher education, contextualising it within pernicious university corporatisation and the degradation of education standards. At USyd, interdisciplinarity’s place in a culture of opacity and mistreatment of staff is exemplified by FASS’ abolition of historical and respected departments in favour of a disciplinary structure earlier this year, further diminishing academics’ autonomy.
The students I surveyed described mostly negative experiences of ICPUs as interdisciplinary learning environments. Students were not dissatisfied with the concept of interdisciplinary study itself, but the University’s failure to meaningfully facilitate it.
“[The ICPU] just made my brain feel like it was being sapped,” says Amy*, an English student who completed her unit with NSW Environment and Planning in late 2020.
“It didn’t make me feel job ready or anything like that. It just made me feel useless […] I was having to really dumb down [English] concepts and make generalisations.”
Amy negates the extent to which ICPUs facilitate truly ‘interdisciplinary’ work, explaining how she was placed in a group composed entirely of VET and science students for her project ‘Saving Koalas’.
“It wasn’t really interdisciplinary… I was trying to bring in these eco-critical ideas, and talk about colonialism and the environment, but because I was the only humanities student in the group, it was so science focused.”
Across industry partners, ICPUs follow a pretty uniform structure, requiring students to select a shell unit (e.g. ‘ENGL3998’ for English), and choose a partner project from a list prior to commencing the semester. They are briefed by the partner in their first week, and must undertake a structured problem-solving process in groups to produce a business-style report. Throughout, students must reflect on how their individual discipline affected their work.
Mark*, a fourth year Science/Advanced Studies student who worked with TAL Life Insurance, felt ICPUs did not meaningfully teach interdisciplinarity.
“I just don’t think forcing interdisciplinarity down people’s throats really works,” he says.
“All of the actual uni staff were great and helpful… [but] I don’t think it’s something that you can set four weeks of reading on, and such complex problems, and expect that to sink in or to actually do anything,” he says.
He mentions that his handbook made it very unclear whether the subject was necessary for course completion. In fact, only Advanced Studies students with two FASS majors must undertake an ICPU. For FASS students with just a single major, or a second major outside of FASS, ICPUs are one of two interdisciplinary unit options. For the faculties of Architecture, Design and Planning, Law, Business, Engineering, Medicine and Health, and the Conservatorium, ICPUs are also optional.
This is somewhat confounding, considering that ICPU project partners and topics are most catered to some of these disciplines.
According to a University spokesperson, “partners are selected to provide students with a selection of corporate, industry and government organisations with appeal to a wide range of students/disciplines”.
However, of the 15 partners on offer for Semester 1, 2022, 7 are banks or accounting , insurance, tech & engineering, telephone, or professional services companies. For Semester 2, these industries make up 11 out of 17. Dominated by the topics of AI, data security, and digital infrastructure, there are few academically-accessible project options for arts and humanities students.
Eve* is an International Relations student who completed her ICPU with ANZ last year.
“I couldn’t tell you what we were trying to solve,” she says. “I wasn’t even interested in it.”
“I think [the skills you learn are] really quite niche. It literally has not crossed my mind until this very moment to go into a job interview and be like, ‘in fact, I did this [unit].”
Alana*, who worked with Westpac, is one student for whom ICPUs have been useful in her career. She enrolled in an optional unit for her Marketing major to “beef up her resume” for internship applications. She finds the teamwork, problem solving, and presentation skills imparted by her ICPU useful in her current consultancy position. But, like other interviewees, she disagrees with mandating ICPUs for some students.
While Eve and Alana expressed positive group work experiences, most interviewees felt unable to fully engage their disciplines and interests in their projects. Like myself, Amy noticed that ICPUs’ prioritisation of ‘pragmatism’ and ‘actionability’ devalues the modes of critical engagement taught in the arts and humanities.
“[The mindset] was completely like, ‘no, this is just unrealistic for a government project.’ I couldn’t bring any ideas I actually cared about to it because it was [meant to be] a ‘pragmatic approach’,” she says.
Amy and Mark both note that interdisciplinary naturally exists in their coursework, and need not be artificially spoon-fed to students.
“We do interdisciplinary stuff in English all the time,” says Amy. “It’s so much more useful to let us do elective space in another subject and that is a way of exploring how another discipline works compared to your own. That is what interdisciplinarity is.”
“With most of the people you work with [in your degree]… there’s loads of double degrees,” adds Mark. “People are [always] bringing frameworks from all the different disciplines and faculties across the University.”
Despite grand promises of employability, ‘interdisciplinarity’ has proved itself a suitably-vague buzzword in which the University may couch arguments for greater degree generalisation and less truly interdisciplinary elective study for many students.
Intellectual property & project partners
In asking students to complete free labour for major corporations, ICPUs engender concerns about students’ intellectual property.
All students must sign a Deed Poll at the commencement of an ICPU, a requirement disclosed in fine print on the how-to-enrol information page. A deed poll is a legal document binding a person or several persons to express an intention, or create an obligation. It is a ‘deed’ because it only binds one party. As Honi reported earlier this year, it is basically a Non Disclosure Agreement in all but name.
“How can there be informed consent around a deed poll when it’s a compulsory part of your degree?” askssays Amy. “There are no ethics behind that.”
The ICPU deed poll licences students’ intellectual property to the University, who may then licence it to the industry partner. It also swears students to keep material about the industry partner and University confidential without written consent.
“[The deed poll] did not sit well with me,” says Eve. “I knew the chance of them actually taking any of our work and implementing it was really, really slim, but it was just the principle of it.”
Despite ICPUs’ employability-centric marketing, it is unclear how the units will benefit graduates given their stringent confidentiality requirements.
Of course, one might argue that many students are used to performing free labour as an investment towards future employment.
Alana, who describes “going around doing unpaid internships” in her first year, says that “doing [industry work] in a HECS-ed setting, where I can just pay my fees later, was much better than the alternative.”
Conversely, Mark, Amy, and Eve all expressed discomfort and frustration towards being forced to work with big corporations, even where the project initially interested them.
Mark’s TAL Life Insurance project, ‘Protecting the Gig Economy Workforce’, was advertised as “protecting gig economy workers and a great social justice initiative,” he says.
“In reality it was just like an advertising scheme.
“It was like we were being used as consultants to help TAL make money off the economy workers who already don’t have disposable income to spend on life insurance.
“I wanted to look at legislation and policy surrounding gig economy workers and I was immediately told like, that’s not what we’re doing here.”
As a result of this reductive framework, he says most of the final projects were trivial apps that didn’t deal with the problem of gig economy workers not “getting paid a livable and standard wage.”
Following the publication of this article, a University spokesperson reached out to notify Honi that the negative student sentiment it expresses was not reflective of what it claims is a largely “successful” student experience.
“More than 7000 students have successfully undertaken ICPU projects over the past four years and students have provided primarily positive feedback, which has been reflected in strong Unit of Study survey scores (on average 81% of respondents score ICPUs a 4 or 5 on every aspect), but we’re always keen to listen to and act on student feedback,” they said.
This high survey score — collected from USyd’s end-of-semester unit survey — stands at odds with the negative sentiment expressed by interviewees and my personal experience of ICPUs, bringing into question why such an incongruence exists. It also does not address the ethical questions surrounding intellectual property discussed in this article.
While this article may not encompass all students’ thoughts on ICPUs, it’s safe to say that they are resolutely disliked by a large quantity of them.
The findings of this article suggest that ICPUs dispense limited academic benefit or enjoyment to students, yet the University defends them while other units are cut. With its billion dollar surplus, it’s surely no stretch of management’s finances or imagination to overhaul ICPUs, and release the structural grip of disciplinarity in faculties like FASS.
When asked what they would change about ICPUs, all students wanted more transparency and communication between students, the University, and industry.
Amy, Mark, and Eve think that interdisciplinary industry work could benefit students, but not in its current form. Mark and Amy both desire “more freedom” to explore their interests and better project options for arts students.
“Honestly, I just think that it’s like a terribly flawed idea from the get-go,” says Amy.
“If my degree isn’t gonna directly land me into a job, that’s just the reality for when you choose English. I don’t think ICPUs make any difference to that.”
If the University wants to promote truly enriching interdisciplinarity, students should have more options to do more units from a wide range of faculties. It should focus on building students’ own specialised knowledge and skills. Its relationship with students should be based on honesty, integrity, and equal value for all degrees and students.
Though, knowing this University’s track record, we might not want to get our hopes up.
*Interviewees names have been changed for confidentiality.
Article was updated on 31 October to include the University’s response.