Education Support People Professional staff Uncategorized

Thoughts on: Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education (Whitchurch, 2008)

As I’ve delved into the place of Education Support People (academic/educational developers, designers and technologists) in shaping TELT practices in Higher Education, there have been repeated references to “Third space professionals”.

This paper by Celia Whitchurch from the University of London is routinely cited in these discussions, papers and presentations so I thought that I might have come across one of my first “seminal” papers. And it’s not bad at all, with a number of interesting ideas and keen observations about the emerging world of employment in Higher Ed. but it’s not entirely what I had hoped it would be.

My take on “third space professionals” until this point has been focused on education support professional staff – non-academics working in universities in areas (teaching and learning) generally considered to be within the academic domain. (As opposed to non-academics working in conventionally “non-academic” areas such as administration/finance/HR/IT/maintenance etc).

My use of the term Education Support People/Professionals (ESPs) is quite deliberate as there are several differentiatable roles in this sphere, with some people focusing on curriculum design and development, others helping to create educational resources, others providing professional development to academics in teaching practices and others still supporting Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices and systems. Many people work in roles that encompass most or all of these responsibilities.

Recent discussions with a number of peers have indicated that there are also a great many academics working in these capacities and I find myself now trying to decide whether it is the nature of the work or the nature of the organizational position (academic vs professional) that is of the greater importance. For now, I think it is the nature of the work, so People seems more helpful than Professionals.

Whitchurch, on the other hand, in this paper at least, largely avoids this sector of work and focuses more on professional staff working in management roles (and project management) in areas that have conventionally considered to be within the academic domain.

She notes

the emergence of broadly based, extended projects such a student transitions, community partnership and professional practice (Whitchurch, 2006a). These have contributed to the creation of a third space between professional and academic domains, requiring contributions from a range of staff. In this space, the concept of administrative service has become reoriented towards one of partnership with academic colleagues and the multiple constitutencies with whom institutions interact (P. 378)

Based on interviews conducted with 54 professional staff members at universities primarily in the UK but also Australia and the U.S, Whitchurch observed that she could classify professional staff as sitting within one of four distinct categories, related to the nature of their role and the extent to which they were confined by its “boundaries”

  • Individuals who located themselves within the boundaries of a function or organizational location that they had either constructed for themselves, or which had been imposed upon them. These people were characterized by their concern for continuity and the maintenance of processes and standards, and by the performance of roles that were relatively prescribed. They were categorized as bounded professionals”

  • Individuals who recognized and actively used boundaries to build strategic advantage and  institutional capacity, capitalizing on their knowledge of territories on either side of the boundaries that they encountered. They were likely to display negotiating and political skills, and also likely to interact with the external environment. These were categorized as cross-boundary professionals and, as in the case of bounded professionals, boundaries were a defining mechanism for them

  • Individuals who displayed a disregard for boundaries, focusing on broadly-based projects across the university such as widening participation and student transitions, and on the development of their institutions for the future. These people undertook work that might be described as institutional research and development, drawing on external experience and contacts, and were as likely to see their futures outside higher education as within the sector. They were categorized as unbounded professionals

  • A fourth category, of blended professionalswho were being recruited to dedicated appointments that spanned both professional and academic domains… worked in areas such as regional partnership, learning support, outreach and offshore provision, and were likely to have mixed backgrounds and portfolios. (P382-384)

Whitchurch’s primary emphasis was on the first three categories, only expanding to define the fourth in her second round of interviews with professionals outside the UK. This is probably the area of greater interest to me and I’ll investigate further to see whether she returned to this in subsequent research.

There is still a lot of material in the Bounded / Cross-boundary / Unbounded categories of note though.

Whitchurch Higher Education workforce map

This diagram maps out current academic and professional domains in the Higher Ed workplace and proposes a location for the Third Space. It also showcases where on the spectrum the various types of professional staff might sit.

Whitchurch goes on to say that

a number of respondents used organic imagery to describe this process of joint working, seeing the building of communicative relationships and networks as more significance than the observance of organisational boundaries, so much so that third space work may occur in spite of, rather than because of, formal structures (P.386)

As I mentioned at the start, the absence of Education Support People in this paper means that much of the management content is lost on me but I still took away a couple more key ideas.

She points out that it is essential for Third Space professionals to find a common language that speaks to both academics and other professional staff. This ties in some ways to the importance of building credibility, which tends not to come from position but from successful projects completed with academics. This suggests to me that there is still something of a cultural divide between academics and professional staff but given that I’m far more likely to judge someone based on their actions than their words or title, I can understand it. It does make me wonder how seriously academics take the titles/positions of their peers when it comes to credibility and this may well be a path for further investigation.

Given that Whitchurch appears to come from a management / HR perspective in her other research, it shouldn’t surprise me that she seems relatively unconcerned about the job security of third space professional staff but it is still disappointing. The undertone is that TSPs can be more effective in a flexible, short term contract/project based role and that this should be taken advantage of to benefit the university. Which, sure, fair enough but what happens to them after the project seems of little interest. The fact that projects often need to be maintained and don’t simply end also doesn’t seem to be on the radar.

Nonetheless, thinking more about the value that professional staff can bring to a university and looking for ways to support their work is a positive first step.