ethics methodology politics Professional staff

Research update #57: Curly questions in ethics

I heard back about my ethics application a few weeks back – it’s mostly fine but there is a big question that I need to respond to before I can go ahead. It’s essentially to do with whether the institution or individuals in the institution are the real participants.

I want to work with key informants in edvisor roles in most (ideally all) of the universities in Australia to learn about their perceptions and experiences in these roles. That’s the easy bit. I also want to gather some rich empirical data about the numbers of peoples in these roles, both in central and faculty – and other? – teams, and how these teams are structured. That’s the hard part.

The ethics committee wants to know what I am going to do in terms of getting permission from the institution to collect this data. In hindsight, this is clearly something I should have given more thought to in the research design. While to me, this data doesn’t seem particularly sensitive, there’s all manner of university politics and other sensitivities surrounding this, apparently.

My feeling is that for this data to be truly meaningful, it needs to reflect all the universities. Otherwise it is just an average or an estimate. (Which is what most of the existing research I’ve found provides.) So what happens if some institutions don’t want to share? (I don’t really expect that to be the case but people being people, who can say?)

The logistics of obtaining permission is another challenge. Am I looking at one person in the institution (maybe like a DVCA – but really I have no idea) or do I need to clear this with them and leaders in each individual faculty? Assuming 6 faculties per institution on average, 280 people? Clearly this isn’t practical.

A few things I’m going to follow up that will hopefully shed light on this. The Council of Australasian Leaders of Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) recently released a very useful environmental scan of professional learning in HE that captured exactly some of this data – though only in central teams from what I can tell. Hopefully the report’s author Kym Fraser can offer some advice on what they did in terms of permissions.

There are also some statutory reporting requirements that HE institutions in Australia have relating to reporting on staffing numbers to the government that might also demonstrate that permission isn’t needed. From what I’ve seen so far, this data doesn’t go into the level of detail that I need though and probably doesn’t go into organisational structures either. Most unis have Business Intelligence units that manage this kind of data – moreso for internal use – I’m also going to chat to them. I don’t think they will be able to make a call on permission but they may have a better idea where to go next.

Another significant question that the Ethics committee has thrown up is whether universities will have issues with their staff working as a key informant for a few hours to do work that is outside that person’s ordinary duties. I really have no answer to this – though I kind of wonder if this question would have been asked if it was academic staff that I was planning to work with. (I probably won’t say that in my response.) It does bring me back to the seeking permission question/dilemma.

Have you had any experience with these kinds of questions? Got any tips?