The academic other in research management

There are many researchers in academia who aren't on research contracts. Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg asks how we can be sure of hearing their voices.

Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a senior research impact and knowledge exchange manager at the Open University, and holds a research affiliation with the OU’s Music Department

Othering. Yes – It is a verb, in social science speak.

There it generally refers to a phenomenon by which some individuals or groups are defined and labelled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group.

The things we believe about each other

There is a lot of othering that goes on within academia when it comes to university administration, and it is stifling our ability to respond to the needs of the modern day academy. As a senior PhD qualified research management professional and a still active, published (but unremunerated) academic and research affiliate in my field, I know.

Not a working day goes by that I sit on a very uncomfortable fence. Many of my wonderful research management colleagues use phrases such as “academics want…” as if all academics are the same and want or need the same things for their career development purposes. They do not. I know, because I am an academic, albeit not on a contract.

Similarly, my academic colleagues and peers raise concerns about “neo-liberal managerialism”, and the “metrication and demise of the university”. They worry about ‘the university’s’ decisions (whoever or whatever “the university” is or are – last time I checked we were all employed by the same organisation). Usually, all current ills are attributed to “university administration” even when in fact the challenges of employability and academic workloads are not restricted to just one institution or country. The problems are systemic, globally and involve governments, funders, Universities, publishers and many more actors. These global systems are ripe for change. Now.

Othering senior leaders?

Those on professional research management contracts often share the blame burden with senior leaders such as Heads of School, Deans, Associate Deans for Research or similar. These colleagues frequently have responsibilities not too dissimilar to that of senior research management professionals but execute their duties on academic contracts (in the UK at least).

From personal experience I can attest that those on professional research management contracts, when PhD qualified, are often perceived as “failed researchers” – why else would they not have an academic (research only) role? The same also goes for those academically employed leaders such as Heads of School. Despite being recruited based on their publication and grants track record, many are prevented from further developing their academic careers as a direct result of their administrative responsibilities, which if done well, will take up the lion’s share of a person’s contracted hours and will impact on their academic activities.

Making the most of what we have

This has given me pause for thought. If academic and professional management roles are similar in responsibilities – and if increasingly many PhD-qualified staff are joining the ranks of research management due to an absence of employment opportunities within the academic disciplines – what is preventing us from exploring the creation of hybrid roles which make best-use of both a person’s academic skillset as well as their administrative acumen? I suggest it is perhaps our entrenched habit of othering either “those academics” or “university administrators”.

All this happens despite the chasm between administrations and academically employed staff being far less detrimental than imagined. Many research management professionals – including, to be clear, those who are not PhD-qualified – care deeply about the creation of new knowledge and work to help take the sting out of reporting policies and processes.

Until recently, funders and government did not seek the views of research management professionals on subjects such as the Research Excellence Framework, even though many research management professionals are deeply committed to ensuring the research sector becomes less bureaucratic and more equitable. Management professionals often emphasise with their academic colleagues (and probably do as much overtime as their academically employed counterparts during the REF submission period).

Change is coming

Change is afoot, however. Recent UKRI consultations on equality, diversity and inclusion and research bureaucracy have explicitly extended an invitation to research management professionals to respond. The Association for Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) in the UK regularly submits responses to consultations to represent the views of research professionals.

The next step? To compare the views of academically employed staff and research management professionals to see how they differ from or complement one another. It would make for an excellent research enquiry, but one which only an academically employed researcher or think tank could conduct. Or would it?

I still think the sector is missing a trick. Due to our inclination to other we are under-utilising the skill sets that people have, stifling our ability to make the University sector a better place. As a hybrid or third-space Other, what “managerialism” has taught me is that people-development skills, succession planning and good administrative strategies can lead to research quality, enhanced (academic) staff wellbeing and employee satisfaction. What my academic activities have impressed upon me is that research management and professional services support within the higher education sector can be enormously helpful if the person offering assistance understands academia and/or has the inclination to respond constructively to the many changes that the sector is facing.

As a hybrid professional I know full-well that some research management professionals are as capable of conducting research-led enquiries and publishing in their fields as are their academically employed counterparts.

Opportunities and barriers

Why not use these insights to enhance staff satisfaction, retention and dare I say it, REF submissions? If excellence is found everywhere, rather than in certain institutions, why might it not be located within the ranks of University administrations? Why not develop hybrid contracts that allow for administrative roles to be academically active and recognised?

There are, of course, practical barriers too: the Higher Education Role Analysis (HERA) process which does not accommodate hybrid roles very well, pressure on university budgets, and questions of line management and performance assessment for starters. Surely, though, a sector that prides itself on its intellectual prowess and its ability to find solutions to problems should be able to find a workable solution to this challenge. If it really wants to support the creation of excellent new knowledge, equitably, no matter where it is found or created it needs to get this right.

Perhaps it is time we ditched this binary othering business within the academy so that we might improve research culture together, and lighten bureaucratic loads as we go along? The system is ready for a significant change, and this will not be achieved if we keep perceiving different parts of the academic system as being adversarial, using stereotypes of what administrators and academics ‘are like’. We are all part of the same system, so let’s try and make a positive difference, together.

Our contracts may be different, but we are not the other.

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