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How solving real-world problems enhances students’ employability

By encouraging students to engage with businesses, the Industry and Community Project Unit at the University of Sydney is preparing graduates for the world of work

  • The University of Sydney
  • employability
  • industry
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World 100

October 8 2021
The University of Sydney ICPU


Sponsored content: created in partnership with University Sydney, part of the World 100 Reputation Network.

The opportunity to work with industry partners on real-world issues allows students to gain relevant experience and achieve professional development, boosting their employability prospects and equipping them with in-demand skills.

The University of Sydney runs an interdisciplinary initiative called the Industry and Community Project Unit (ICPU), which offers students from all disciplines the chance to enhance their education by working with major industry partners for credit both in Australia and internationally. For Emma Peake, a history and English major at the university, the opportunity to work with HR giant and leading global employer Randstad gave her the relevant experience to begin her career.

Peake’s time with Randstad turned into an official internship, giving her an insight into what she wanted to do when she graduated. “I would recommend the opportunity to anyone, but especially students who are uncertain about their path post-graduation,” Peake says.

A foot on the ladder

Peake’s project with Randstad focused on the question of whether artificial intelligence can match a resume with a job role. “This is a real issue. We really treated it like a problem we’d been contracted to solve by a company,” Peake says. This meant working towards a final solution outlined in an extensive proposal that was presented to Randstad. “I chose to work on this issue because I think, like a lot of students, I was a bit nervous about entering the job market and wanted to learn as much as I could about recruitment and the world of work.”

Peake says the project helped her realise the value of her arts degree. “During a meeting with Randstad, I made a joke about being prepared for unemployment because I’m an arts student. I was met with laughter and a round of protestations. I thought, ‘well they have to say that’. Throughout the course of the ICPU and the internship I learnt that I was very wrong,” she says. “Employers are actively seeking out arts students because our ability to think and write critically is a transferable skill that will remain invaluable no matter how much the world of work changes. This is really important as workplaces become increasingly digitised and tech-reliant.”

The unit of study also proved to Peake that having professional experience improves your employability prospects. “It’s something that looks great on your resume and your coordinator will be happy to act as a reference for future job hunts. The same goes for your team members, who might become crucial parts of your network if you keep in touch with them,” she says. “You’ll learn about how you work beyond a university setting and into a professional one, both individually and as part of a collaborative team. For me, personally, I discovered the career course I want to take in the future.

Peake encourages all students to take advantage of the professional opportunities that the University of Sydney] newsletter, halfway through my degree and a little bit nervous about what I was going to do afterwards,” she says. “Sometimes, it seems impossible to escape that catch-22: you need experience to get work and work to get experience. If you take a little time to read your faculty newsletters and simply stay up to date, there’s a load of opportunities on offer.”

The power of collaboration

The University of Sydney has partnered with more than 70 leading business, government and community organisations in Australia and internationally to offer undergraduate students the opportunity to work on real-world projects and engage with major industry partners. Partners in 2021 include Accenture, Adobe, ANZ, Coles, EY, IBM, KPMG and Westpac. Students have the opportunity to explore real-world topics such as the future of healthcare, the war on waste, reimagining social housing and open data disruption.

Since the inception of the ICPU in 2018, more than 5,600 students have completed 180 projects with over 70 industry partners in six countries. Projects have taken place in China, Hong Kong, India and Italy, and the University of Sydney will continue to run these projects internationally in the future. It plans to enter new international markets such as Singapore and Korea to ensure students gain global experiences and perspectives.

“These projects provide an exceptional platform to bring an industry lens to help support an enriching learning experience by providing the opportunity for students to work on real-world industry problems,” says a spokesperson from EY. “Working in cross-disciplinary teams, students are able to gain insight into the various drivers and multiple stakeholder perspectives required in developing a set of robust, viable and compelling recommendations.”

In collaboration with an industry partner and academic lead, students taking part in the ICPU work in a group with peers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds. The partner organisation provides a brief for a real problem they face, and students will research, analyse and present solutions at the end of the project.

The project units can be taken intensively in February or July or as a semester-long project. They are taken as six-credit-point units and are available to senior undergraduate students from disciplines including business, arts, science, engineering, law, architecture, music and health. The variety of disciplines and schools of thought encourages creative thinking, producing new ways to tackle complex problems – to the benefit of both the students and the partner organisations.

The University of Sydney is a leading institution for graduate employability, ranked first in Australia for the past five years, and fourth in the world, which means it is firmly focused on giving students a head start as they navigate the future workplace. The ICPU sits alongside a range of other employability initiatives, including student entrepreneurship programmes that equip students with the skills they need to accelerate their ideas, career or research. The Careers Centre also provides advice and other resources that place graduates in the best career position by the end of their studies.

The majority of the university’s degree programmes also offer embedded or elective placements and internships, which range from two weeks to a year. Each hands-on programme is developed for the specific area of study in order to best enhance students’ employability prospects.

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