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Lessons from Hollywood: How industry can benefit higher education institutions

Elena Galán-Muros
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University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Animal Logic Academy is a world leading animation and visualisation school built on the firm belief that industry should lead education. In our recent Fireside Chat, Balzhan Orazbayeva (Manager Strategic Initiatives, UIIN) sat down with Ian Thompson (Head of UTS Animal Logic Academy) to discuss how UTS created a ground-breaking model for their master’s program that provides graduates with an opportunity to directly develop critical, industry-focused and professional skills.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Balzhan Orazbayeva:

Could you please tell us a little bit more about the Animal Logic Academy?

Ian Thompson:

It’s a strange name. People that don’t come from the animation and visual effects industry often think we run a master’s course in veterinary psychology, or something similar – but Animal Logic is probably Australia’s leading 3D animation studio. In the last few years, Animal Logic has gained presence on the global stage. They did the production on the first Happy Feet movie, they worked on The Matrix, […] the Lego movies. The two Peter Rabbit movies, for example, are Animal Logic own productions.

The animation and visual effects industry is already booming all around the world, but Australia was in a unique position 30 years ago. We have a strong culture of animation in this country […].

There is an opportunity to develop higher quality, homegrown talent that can not only serve our growing domestic market, but the international market too”.

That’s really, where the idea for the UTS Animal Logic Academy was born. Zareh Nalbandian, Animal Logic’s Co-Founder and CEO, approached the then Vice Chancellor at the UTS and said, “this is huge and Australia is growing quickly, we need the educational sector support”. And the Vice Chancellor agreed to help set up this academy to develop higher quality graduates to industry.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:

In your opinion, what would be the main challenges that could be associated with setting up such a complex creature?

Ian Thompson:

One of the biggest challenges is to develop a model that breaks all the rules. I think this was incredibly challenging for those people who were involved in setting up the academy, because industry had a very strong voice in letting the university know what type of graduates it needed. […] A lot of the graduates coming through the undergraduate colleges and courses had a certain degree of technical skill, but they were very used to working in short periods, and usually individually or in very small groups. So, industry was finding that they’re not really prepared to work on large collaborative projects.

It was the soft skills that industry wanted. They wanted graduates that would hit the ground running, knew how to work as part of a large collaborative team, had good communication skills and could take constructive feedback”.

The best way to do that is through project-based learning […] It’s like having your first year in industry: the students develop and produce a 3D animated short film in the space of a year, to studio-level production values.

Project-based learning has been around for a while but to make it work, it was decided to run it in a one-year, bootcamp style instead of the usual 18 months to two years for master’s. We run three sessions and the students come in, Monday to Friday, nine to five. You can imagine the university administration’s reaction: “Oh, my God, what is this? It doesn’t fit into any of our boxes”. But that’s the value in what we do.

We don’t do things the traditional university way – we focus on the way industry would like things to be taught, with the outcomes that industry is very keen on”.

The benefit of that is that industry gets graduates that are useful from day one, rather than taking from six months to a year to train up graduates to be useful in their studios and their businesses.

Balzhan Orazbayeva:

Do you have any advice for those wanting to replicate or create similar educational work-based learning arms at their universities? How should they go about their partnerships with industry to make that happen?

Ian Thompson:

It does take quite a commitment from the university to really believe in the value of this type of partnership and this type of learning. I don’t think the model would have worked if the university had tried to co-design this with our industry partner and press it into the existing university systems. It just wouldn’t work.

Furthermore, it has required quite a financial commitment from the university. Now we have 40 plus students, operationally we’re in the right zone, but those first few years were building up traction. That’s hard for a university, especially through COVID. When you’ve got other courses where you can put 200 paying students into a lecture theatre and run tutorials, 40 students are not that profitable.

I think the future of learning, particularly for the university sector, isn’t just about one type of learning experience. It’s about different courses, or different ways of learning for different types of learners”.

A whole university could probably not be based on the sort of model that we run, but we offer a wonderful choice for students and an alternative for the university. I think there’s real value in that.

[…] My recommendation to universities is to commit to it. There’s great value in it, listen to the industry partners, but also keep that relationship in balance. There’s great value in the coexistence.

You can learn more about UTS Animal Logic students projects here.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can listen now to Santiago Iñiguez, President of IE University, imagine what the Future University looks like and learn more about how IE University is working towards that in this episode, or learn more about the benefits of learner-oriented universities in our conversation with Dr. Cameron McCoy, Provost of Shenandoah University, in this episode.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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