The idea of “third space professionals” was developed by Celia Whitchurch in 2013, in her book Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education.
She observed that there was a group of university staff who are “blurring … the perceived binary division between academic and non-academic roles.” The notion of “third space”, as she went on to examine, “is used as a way of exploring groups of staff in higher education who do not fit conventional binary descriptors such as those enshrined in ‘academic’ or ‘non-academic’ employment categories.”
The idea of third spaces derives from social theory to describe artificial or outdated “dualisms” where we have tendency to oversimplify an issue by saying it is black or white, east or west, left or right, rather than recognising the multiplicity of blurred identities that sit between two oversimplified extremes.
In their timely book, Emily McIntosh and Diane Nutt explore the impact of third space professionals working within largely UK universities. Through a collection of 22 essays by different authors, many of whom work in these third spaces, they explore the full gamut of issues – from student engagement through to leadership.
As a collection the essays are organised around four sections. The first focuses on strategies, leadership and theories; the second on identities, boundaries and ways of working; the third on the impact of the third space profession; and the final part on careers.
Each essay is a compelling story in itself, mixing up different analytical approaches and narrative styles. Some are personal stories of the authors’ lived experience in navigating the complexities of higher education today, others draw from empirical research looking at both demographics and attitudes.
While the majority of the essays recount the critical role that third space professionals played – and continue to play – during the pandemic, some examine historical antecedents as well as future trajectories.
For me the topic is too important to get diverted by a semantic debate, but the language of “third space” does to a degree conjure up an “otherness” which may be counterproductive at times. For this reason, a number of the authors – including McIntosh and Nutt – use a variety of synonyms, including “integrated practioners”, “blended professional” and “pracademic”, to describe these group of people who can neither be described as academic nor non-academic.
Taken as a whole, on reading, you come away with the overwhelming conviction that third space professionals are the lifeblood of any modern university. This is not to downplay traditional academic and professional roles but to give a big shout out to the significance of these people who are often likely– in the words of Whitchurch – “to be invisible”.
As the opening essay by Julie Hall argues, there is a risk that “the third space could become no space if it remains hidden and invisible.” This book contributes to making third space professionals visible and for that reason alone it should be welcomed.
But when I finished the book, I had an alliteration, based on a set of other “I”s, floating around my head and that was, identity, imposter and impact. For that risk of “no space” to be mitigated it is essential that this cadre of professionals are appropriately recognised and rewarded within university career structures and that this group of people create and own their identity. As Katie Akerman puts it in another chapter, “identity is the basis of credibility, respect and welfare; it guards against imposter syndrome and invisibility.”
The final “I” – impact – is so self-evident in reading the book that it is almost worth not elucidating on. But to a degree that is the point of the book – it is critical to celebrate the significant impact third space professionals have and in doing so acknowledge how embedded such professionals are in the day-to-day workings of all universities. Not acknowledging their contribution – through their lack of recognition – is frankly scandalous.
And in my mind this argument is further amplified given the context of Covid. As McIntosh and Nutt point out in the concluding chapter, “the accounts contained within this volume demonstrate that there is now, more than ever, a need to revisit the organising principles of the academy, not least to account for the huge shift in focus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shift to blended learning and working.”
Break with tradition
It seems traditional in writing a book review to finish on a couple of critical points – but I struggle to come up with any! In short, the book is fabulous. But I know I am biased. When I worked in higher education, I would often describe myself as a third space professional, although I had an academic contract. My background of policy and think-tankery made me an outsider in a very closed and often inaccessible world, with Whitchurch’s work providing me with a ticket of entry.
In addition, as noted a number of times throughout the book, the notion of revisiting the “organising principles of the academy” through the lens of third spaces is very new power and something that can provide a guiding principle for universities during a much-needed reset and reform of the sector.
That said, two final thoughts to close. The first is the book – and the broader debate around third space professionals – is often anchored in the educational mission of the university and omits other professionals be those in research and social responsibility. I think being more inclusive in our conversations on third space professionals can only be mutually beneficial.
The second is the “so what?” question. This book provides a compelling diagnosis of the problem, as well as offering a number of recommendations for the future, but comes short of setting out an agenda for how third space professional are fully recognised within the higher education system.
Surely now is the time to have this conversation and perhaps this book should provide the foundations for a sector wide initiative that moves us from the current dualism to one where the in-betweeners can pursue a visible career with confidence, ambitious and continued impact.
The impact of the integrated practitioner in higher education: studies in third space professionalism is edited by Emily McIntosh and Diane Nutt, and published by Routledge on 31 March 2022.