theory third space Uncategorized Whitchurch

Thoughts on: Optimising the Potential of Third Space Professionals in Higher Education (Whitchurch, 2010)

2010 was a bit of a banner year for Celia Whitchurch as we continue this journey following the development of her work on the Third Space (3S) in Higher Education. (I write Third Space way too often to want to do it every time, so 3S seems like a handy alternative). She published 4 papers/articles, I think mostly based around a research project that she conducted funded by the UK Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. There is a reference in this paper to her having worked in Higher Ed leadership and management before she began her scholarly work into 3S, which for me clears up some of her attitudes towards how ok ‘flexible’ arrangements are for 3S professional staff.

Where the 2008 paper set the scene and introduces the concept of the Third Space and the categories of 3S workers, this work seems more focused on solutions to some of the wicked problems that 3S workers – particularly professionals – encounter in having their expertise accepted. She presents three main processes in the acceptance and integration of 3S workers – Contestation, Reconciliation and Reconstruction. (Reconstruction is at one point referred to as Reconstitution and I’m not sure if that is autocorrect or an earlier version of the terminology).

Much of the Contestation stuff rang true, the Reconciliation and Reconstruction felt far more aspirational. Maybe this is a reflection of the kinds of institutions that I have worked in but I do still like them as starting points for the “how do we actually address these issues” section of my thesis. I’m happy to say that there is a bit more quoting of study participants than last time in this article too.

Whitchurch expands the scope of her 3S exemplar workers from the 2008 study to include people who are far more EdAdvisor like, with the subject of her main case study being a multimedia developer who produces learning content and delivers training on how to use it. She surveyed 73 people in UK HE institutions and interviewed 10, 5 from a Pre-92 uni and 5 from a Post-92 uni. So I do feel far more able to relate to her points in this piece. It is interesting now that I think about it that this piece does not actually really refer to boundaries or boundary related categories at all. Maybe she felt that she had said what she needed to say on that matter.

The categories of activity most frequently mentioned by respondents as part of their current portfolio were as follows:

  • Programme development
  • Widening participation
  • Community and business partnership
  • Professional and academic practice
  • Learning support
  • Institutional planning
  • Communications and public relations.


This is described as a process but I would probably consider it more of a state. Either way, this pretty well describes the experiences that I (and most 3S workers I know) have had where “a sense of in-between-ness was evident”. (Whitchurch, 2010, P.12)

“During the Contestation process, individuals define themselves according to what
they see as the dominant “rules and resources” (GIDDENS, 1990). In an academic
environment, academic space is seen as the ‘default’ space. Staff who work in
‘professional’ space may feel that they are seen as outsiders, and even have a sense
of disenfranchisement. They are likely, therefore, to find themselves negotiating
their position.”


The quotes from her subjects here ring very true for me

The following comments illustrate conditions of contestation:

  • “… academic colleagues [fail] to see the value in what I do.”
  • “My ideas have been taken away by [academic] managers and developed by them rather than by me.”
  • “… academic staff have no interest in the area I am involved in.”
  • “… [I am obliged to be] reactive to others rather than having autonomy to assume more proactive roles.”

She goes on to highlight what she sees as some of the key differences between academic work and professional work. These two seem to be the most pertinent and deserve further consideration in understanding the cultural differences between these workers. (Interestingly culture is not actually discussed, it is at best alluded to under “political issues and negotiations” (p.13)

  • The speed of and timescales within which activity takes place, described by
    one manager as different “rhythms” between academic and more project oriented
    approaches, geared to achieving outcomes
  • The contractual nature of work involving clients and partners, as opposed to
    the more open-ended nature of academic work.


Whitchurch goes to the Third Space source in Bhabha (1995) to powerfully describe the ongoing tension experienced by 3S people forced to juggle competing priorities and values:

As a coping strategy during the Contestation process, individuals may privately
contest inherited “rules and resources”, whilst abiding by them for pragmatic
purposes. This can result in a process of “doublespeak” or “splitting”, which
involves “living on the cusp, to deal with two contradictory things at the same time
without either transcending or repressing that contradiction…” (BHABHA quoted
in MITCHELL, 1995: 5-6).



It is at this point that Whitchurch’s perspective on the 3S starts to diverge from mine. I’m not opposed to her view or approach to how things might be better – it simply doesn’t mesh with my personal experience. (I would love to be able to say that I had been involved in these kinds of activities and I am very interested in finding ways to move into them.)

She presents Reconciliation as a process or a state where academic and professional staff identify mutual benefits from genuine collaboration and recognise that they need to work around existing immutable structures in establishing new kinds of working relationships.

It therefore enables new forms of activity to occur, for instance, for professional staff to undertake work from which they might otherwise be excluded, such as teaching students or institutional research and development


(Worth noting that there is no discussion of academics doing work in the professional sphere)

What this looks like in practice is described by her subjects:

Work in the reconciliation process is characterized by comments about facilitating understandings and developments across different spheres of activity, such as:

  • “… giving voice to the student learner, whilst presenting findings to the relevant committees.”
  • “… working with a wide pool of colleagues from a wide geographical patch, making linkages across the network and being able to offer development opportunities.”
  • “… connecting people together to solve problems and translate their different languages (technical, business, education); enabling them to meet their own challenges.”

My initial response is that this looks a lot like cross-boundary work. The ‘translate their different languages‘ part has come up in my own research and strongly suggests the importance of empathy and understanding.


Reconstruction seems to me the boldest phase and (sadly) the least likely to occur for this reason. It involves the creation of a new, shared and more equal Third Space. Leadership maintains authority over regular academics by the thinnest of hairs, unlike any other workplace I have ever seen. (Maybe this is part of my problem in understanding HE – is it a workplace or is it something else? If something else, then what? Perhaps that tension between workplace and whatever is one of the charms/challenges of the academy). Leaders are therefore usually unwilling to upset ‘the natural order’ too much and so large scale redistribution of power from academics to professional staff – which is how it would be seen at least – would be met with unbearable resistance. (Which is not to downplay leaders’ unwillingness to cede their own standing either, of course)

The irony is that the way Whitchurch’s 3S professional workers envision such a thing is so seemingly mild:

  • “Interaction with, and respect received from academic colleagues on an equal intellectual footing.”
  • “[Gaining] acceptance of project officer experiences as relevant background…”
  • “I have a good deal of freedom to produce solutions appropriate to the situation and/or project.” (P.14)

Whitchurch (and Bhabha) seem to see reconstruction as a far more significant structural change:

Throughout the process of Reconstruction, therefore, new “rules and resources” are
created. In BHABHA’s terms, the space it offers “displace[s] the histories that
constitute it, and set[s] up new structures of authority… which are inadequately
understood through received wisdom… a new area of negotiation of meaning and
representation” (BHABHA, 1990). These might be represented by, for instance,
recognition of a project within institutional structures via representation on a
formal committee; by the creation of a new department or unit; or, at a system wide
level, by the development of a professional association or publication relating
to a new form of activity, such as institutional research. In this sense new space is
being created that is not defined solely by being ‘in-between’ professional and
academic space.


I have personally considered the need for a professional association for 3S workers (with a teaching support/education advisor focus specifically) but such a thing is a massive endeavour and initial interest was, sadly, tepid at best. (But just because that is my experience doesn’t mean that it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done).

At an institutional level, creating a new unit is feasible but great thought should be given to its leadership and strategic direction to avoid repeating existing structures and problems. Overall, a very compelling collective vision is needed.

Whitchurch’s subjects again highlight how much, despite all the desire for equality between academic and professional staff, the hierarchy is unlikely to shift. Advancement still involves assimilation into the dominant culture.

“Reconstruction, therefore, involves the active contribution of individuals to the formation of new, plural space. As shown in the case profile below, they are, during this process, likely to develop new identities for themselves and their teams. This is reflected in comments such as:

  • “… finding time to undertake a doctorate… required within higher education to be taken seriously.”
  • “… there is always a tension between general management skills and craft-specific skills. I am studying for an MBA to improve the former and training at work for the latter.”

She presents a case study of a media developer that, in my mind, reinforces this idea.

“I’ve had to create my own role, find my own ways into systems and force my way into meetings, rather than wait for someone to ask me to contribute…” They therefore took the initiative in entering fora that might be uncomfortable or challenging in order to progress the
debate about the opportunities offered by technology, both to learning and teaching and
to institutional strategy.”


Her media developer also plainly articulates what I increasingly believe lies at the heart of most of the conflict in Higher Ed – competing priorities:

“I see the management decisions tak[en] around me that seem to be contradicting what I’ve just heard the Vice-Chancellor say… you’ve got two different groups of people often talking two different languages”. These languages expressed different preoccupations and concerns, for instance, in relation to the way that learning outcomes might be achieved so as to meet both academic and institutional objectives.”


Whitchurch moves on to explore an idea that resonates with me – the existence of different kinds of occupants in the Higher Ed Third Space. She identifies ‘tourists’ and ‘permanent residents’. In my time in HE, I have sat on a few recruitment panels and there is invariably a sizable cohort of people (academics) applying for 3S roles as a stop-gap while they wait for their dream ‘proper’ academic job. Given academic precarity, I sympathise but they are rarely hired and there is something mildly insulting at times about the assumption that holding a PhD in ethnomusicology alone is qualification enough to be a learning designer. This is not to say that there aren’t people who can bring great value to 3S roles.

Whitchurch notes that because ‘tourists’ like this “are able to accommodate a degree of open-endedness, uncertainty and even risk, this enables them to be relatively un-phased by Contestation.” (P.17)

“Permanent residents”, on the other hand, see their 3S work as a career or vocation, and

may be involved in all three processes and might be characterised as ‘permanent residents’ who create new forms of space to which they have a sense of belonging. They are therefore more likely to become involved in the Reconstruction process, and to be able to cope both with being ‘an other’ in relation to academic staff, and of being professionals in their own right.


I do, sadly, still question the ability of professional 3S permanent residents to affect the kind of change needed in Reconciliation and Reconstruction but agree that they are more likely to see the value of it happening. In practical terms, most of what they do seems to relate to forming informal networks for knowledge sharing across faculties and departments. I don’t believe that these networks generally include the conventional academics (or leaders) needed to bring change but they are nonetheless vital for supporting 3S workers.

One final thing in this paper that I was quietly happy to see because it ties together two of my own theory angles that I had thought were relatively disparate. Whitchurch discusses the things that institutions might choose to do to create opportunities for better 3S work to occur – this is effectively putting Practice Architectures (Kemmis, 2013) in place.

Institutions may wish, therefore, to consider what might be the conditions and variables that affect the ways in which the Third Space might be made to work for them. These might include, for instance:

  • Staffing profile (background, length of service, experience, networks, qualifications).
  • The nature of individual projects (balance of activity, number of partners, maturity of partnership, extent of “strong” and “weak” ties – Granovetter, 1973).
  • Institution/sub-institution mission, aspirations, niche market.”

She also proposes this set of recommendations for institutions to consider:

  • The development of ‘mature’ relationships through the processes of contestation, reconciliation, and reconstruction may complement formal reporting lines.
  • The development of management practices that facilitate rather than control these three processes.
  • The creation of job descriptions that facilitate mobility and role enhancement.
  • Inclusion of activities such as partnership building and development in workload models and promotion criteria.
  • The use of rewards and incentives (not necessarily financial), such as responsibility allowances, eligibility for special awards, and professional development opportunities for those working in the Third Space.
  • The use of attachments and associations to recognize crossover activity, for example, in an institutional center for teaching and learning or higher education studies.
  • How to acknowledge that for some individuals, the lack of structure and clear parameters in the Third Space may be uncomfortable and even cause anxiety, and how to find ways to support them through mentoring or coaching. (P.19)

She concludes with this observation that possibly sums up everything at the heart of the Third Space and which leads me to question some of my assumptions about the importance of organisational structures. Not all of them though, as I still believe that these structures can be directly tied to the strength of relationships and opportunities for them to flourish.

What seems clear, however, is that relationships rather than structures are at the heart of the way that Third Space works for individuals and institutions.

Whitchurch, C. (2010). Optimising the Potential of Third Space Professionals in Higher Education. Zeitschrift für Hochschulentwicklung.
Hemmings, B., Kemmis, S., & Reupert, A. (2013). Practice architectures of university inclusive education teaching in Australia. Professional Development in Education, 39(4), 470–487.