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“I hate PEP.”
If any phrase has embodied my (brief) time as a first year engineering student at USYD, it’s this. Muttered over laptops at 3 am, chanted across megadesks in PNR building, or proclaimed with gusto beside beers at the Royal, it has become the clarion call of a cohort.
They’re talking about the Professional Engagement Program (PEP), a new initiative by the Engineering Faculty where students log and write reflections for 600 hours of their work experience and extra-curriculars during their degree. The website says PEP is “designed to develop student’s workplace competencies and transferrable employability skills that companies look for in engineering graduates.” It’s award-winning, we were told on O-Week, that one weird trick UNSW doesn’t want you to know. I, like many others, am suspicious. Yes, it’s annoying and a trek. Yes, it’s job-attractiveness is dubious. But I think the harm of the Professional Engagement Program goes far deeper. When uni says that not only your skills should be employable, but your hobbies, your interests, your characteristics, your qualities and your personality must be geared to the utmost maximum job-seeking perfection, there’s a problem. PEP points to a culture where YOU are the perfect product, whether you like it or not.
Let’s see how this plays out with a hypothetical young PEP-er called Jason. Jason works as a tutor and debating coach. He sits down to log the hours he spent at work, only for it to take over half an hour because he has to match it to a highly formulaic reflection diagram with sections such as “Reflective Observation”, “Abstract Conceptualisation” and “Active Experimentation.” Following these strict guidelines, he writes about what went wrong, strategies he could have taken, how this helps him to become a good professional, and what lessons he could extract from this precious slice of youth for the workforce. Forgive me, but it seems somewhat patronising to suggest that Jason, an adult who can vote, cannot grow from his own life experiences without a corporate-style essay to hold his hand. If the reflection doesn’t conform to the formula, claims are frequently rejected. And that is to log one hour.
Let me ask you a question: if a starry-eyed Scott Farquhar or Mike Cannon-Brookes walked across Cadigal Green as a 2019 first-year, with big dreams of changing tech and the hustle to do it, would they need PEP? Of course not – they would CV sculpt their way to success off their own back, by their own free choice as adults, and we would applaud them all the way. Second question: for the graduates who don’t want that, who want just a good, stable job, can they do this under a PEP regime? No – because the logic of universities assumes that everyone should be single-mindedly career-focused. It never considers that those who could achieve more competitive jobs off the bat through more work experience/internships/PEP hours choose not to because their choices lie elsewhere.
But since these qualities are not “transferrable employability skills that companies look for,” then the university surgically implants them. Higher education has become the exclusive breeders of workers, rather than freeing people to choose the level of success they desire by teaching them skills and knowledge, logic and facts.
What PEP points to goes beyond USYD. It points to a wider world where job security has gone down the collective gurgler of globalisation, automation, overpopulation and economic uncertainty. It illustrates the steady encroach of work upon all aspects of our individual lives in the never-ending quest for efficiency. It beggars belief that we must answer questions such as, “What is the relevance of this specific activity to your broader professional development?” and “What does it mean for you and your ongoing professional development?” (see rubric for “Stage 3a – Abstract Conceptualisation”) about the day-to-day mise-en-scene of first year life like waiting tables and weekend sports.
As author David Frayne writes, “…the enjoyment of life is increasingly being subordinated to personal cultivation for the labour market. When the development of employability is a practical necessity and a main mental preoccupation, we become increasingly devoted to doing what needs to be done rather than performing activities because they are intrinsically valuable, i.e., because they develop our personal capacities, or enrich our friendships, or simply because we love to do them… Each worker is taught that he or she can always be more, and employability becomes a tragic path whose travellers declare a constant war on themselves, questioning the suitability of their personalities and achievements, never quite satisfied that they are spending their time sensibly enough (Costea et al., 2012).” In a competitive world, strategies like PEP are the new frontier of productivity and control.
“It’s like taking over your life!” I say to the Two-Minutes-of-PEP-Hate circle of disaffected PNR first years.
My friend Joshua, shorn of his interpretative faculties to see statements as symbols for sentiment, with that perennial engineer’s proclivity, born of working with that which is immutable by imagination and beyond interpretation, to see things in their unaltered objectivity, replies, with the good-natured condescension of he who seizes the joke inherent in the dramatic excess of another: “I think that’s taking it a bit far.”
Perhaps, Joshua, perhaps. And yet I see evidence of this compulsory culture of employability not just in PEP, but everywhere. Walking past my high school maths classroom, I see signs declaring, “CAREERS FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE GOOD AT MATHS!” (messaging since Day 1 of Year 7 of the worth of mathematics for employment rather than enjoyment or intellectual curiosity). When doing Red Shield Appeal in Year 11, after asking two mates why they rocked up, I was greeted with the twin call of, “Resume.” Honi Soit wrote of USYD’s obssession with gestures of employability with OLEs and interdisciplinary units where “two academic staff from an interdisciplinary subject again used employability as justification for the new curriculum.” The viral high school commencement speech “You Are Not Special” by teacher David McCullough Jr. railed against the cultivation of college application-worthy lives in a desperate scrabble to become the perfect cookie cutter of what the system wants, a puppet strangled by the thousand strings of society’s expectations of success.
But we live in a different world, say the realists. Life isn’t fair. We’re Gen Z. We were born repressed and depressed. It’s a jungle out there and we’ve got to succeed in a world that knows no different.
Maybe we are the new precariat, the employable and damned. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be employable – it’s a very admirable trait to have, and definitely not selfish or immoral. But as adults, we should have the choice how or whether to take on that challenge, and PEP takes that choice from you.
Plus, as my erstwhile compatriot Jason rants over Messenger, “There’s 0 reason to think employers would like the fact that we’ve done PEP. Because it doesn’t actually mean anything.” In other words, employers want people who can think like adults, who have metamorphosed from confused, immature teenagehood to the mature serenity of adulthood. But that’s something you learn through trial and error, the raw stuff of experience – getting fired and growing up, failing assignments and growing up, realising the importance of networking to your goals and growing up – and facing those childhood habits. It doesn’t come when we handhold young people through this critical stage of growth with “reflections” and “hour logging” targets. It doesn’t come when we infantalise uni students beyond the classroom as well as within it.
Perhaps the unintended yet greatest insight on this topic came from an interview the Australian Financial Review – my favourite newspaper – did with chief Westpac economist Bill Evans (USYD university medallist, interest rate oracle, chad. If Plato’s Realms of Forms housed a symbol to represent “most employable person ever”, it would be him). Said the interviewer:
“As we enjoy a coffee – Evans has a long black – I ask whether he reckons young Australians today have it tougher than he did back in the day.
Sure,” is his immediate response. “I think it’s sad. When we do interviews for grads at Westpac the quality of the people is extraordinary. I wouldn’t have got my uni medal today. Not with my lifestyle!”
And with that tantalising picture of a young larrikin university graduate in the 1970s, Evans tells me how much he has enjoyed our lunch, but that he has to be off.”
There are many descriptors for the ideal Vitruvian grad of PEP employability, but “larrikin” is not one of them. If we want to end this culture, and give young people the liberty to choose their own path to jobs and adulthood, then perhaps it should be.