Traditional HE role classifications create structural inequalities for third space professionals

Steve Briggs, Sally Everett, and Debbie Holley assess the evidence from Advance HE national teaching awards

Steve Briggs is Director for Learning and Teaching Excellence at the University of Bedfordshire

Sally Everett is Professor of Business Education and Vice Dean (Education) at King’s Business School, King’s College London

Debbie Holley is Professor of Learning Innovation at Bournemouth University

Across the higher education sector, many universities will classify staff roles according to the traditional dichotomy of “academic” or “professional service” (or non-academic). However, this categorisation is increasingly looking very dated.

There is a growing number of “third way” education-focused pathway academics who are not following the traditional routes of research or research and teaching. Likewise, many higher education professionals work in teaching and learning roles that transcend both academic and professional functions. Celia Whitchurch has described the individuals who hold positions like learning developers, learning technologists, and librarians as working in the “third space.”

Work undertaken by third space teaching and learning professionals is very diverse. Examples might include providing extracurricular student support, delivery or co-delivery of scheduled teaching sessions or working in partnership with academic staff to develop curriculum. Consequently, like academic staff, third space teaching and learning professionals will be critical to the advancement of teaching and learning practice.

Many of the teaching and learning professionals who work in the third space have qualifications, experiences and skill sets comparable to their academic colleagues and will share similar career progression aspirations. Amongst many third space practitioners there is a particular concern at being classified as working in a professional service role due to the restrictions this can have on the scope of development opportunities.

For example, a professional service contract may often mean that an individual will have limited or no opportunities to engage in research, may not be eligible for academic promotion routes, such as professorship, and struggle to demonstrate their individual impact on student outcomes for awards, due to a focus on professional service outcomes.

As such, there is a real risk for the current generation of third space teaching and learning practitioners employed on professional service contracts to become casualties of structural inequalities related to contract type. Unfortunately Advance HE teaching excellence award nominee data would suggest that this is exactly what is happening.

Teaching excellence awards

Advance HE has two flagship annual awards to recognise teaching excellence across higher education providers. The National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS) launched in 2000 and there have subsequently been 1,143 winners. The Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE) award launched in 2016 and there have been 119 winners. Competition for both awards is considerable because higher education providers can only nominate up to three individuals for NTFS and one team for CATE each year. Award winners (up to 55 NTFs and 15 CATE teams annually) often report that receiving an award has positively and significantly impacted on their professional standing and career trajectory. As such the process by which nominees are selected by institutions has the potential to reduce or reinforce societal and/or structural inequalities experienced by higher education teaching and learning professionals.

To promote equality, diversity and inclusion in the NTFS Advance HE collects equal opportunities monitoring data from nominees (and reviewers) via a voluntary online survey and compares it with HESA staff data to establish if any groups are under-represented. HESA 2022-23 data indicated that 45.3 per cent of higher education staff work in professional services. Broadly in line, 44.1 per cent of nominated CATE team members were from professional services in 2023.

However, in stark contrast only 5.8 per cent of NTFS nominees worked in professional services in 2023. One might initially attribute this discrepancy to the eclectic nature of the “professional services” job category and the fact that only a subsection of this group has teaching and learning duties. However, reported lived experiences would suggest that there are deeper issues at play.

Since 2021, Advance HE has been working in partnership with the Committee for the Association of National Teaching Fellows to deliver the “In It Together” project with the aim to increase the representation, progression and success of underrepresented groups within the NTFS. Through this project we have consulted with NTF winners, aspiring NTFs and Teaching Excellence Award Leads (those responsible for shortlisting NTFS nominees within higher education providers) through focus groups and facilitated discussions to identify experienced barriers.

Interviewees reported more value being attached to the traditional academic role and a limited understanding among key decision makers of the diversity of teaching and learning roles. There was frequently a reliance on managers to help to raise institutional profiles of individual teaching and learning practitioners working in professional services. This can be particularly challenging when impacts are often reported at a team rather than practitioner level. This may be in contrast to academic departments where the work of individuals is perhaps often more conventionally reported and celebrated.

There was also a perceived lack of support, such as access to mentorship or coaching, to overcome feelings of imposter syndrome and low confidence amongst potential applicants working in professional services. This was potentially further exacerbated by uneven distribution of former winners across universities resulting in some aspiring applicants having little or no direct contact with potential role and/or real models. Adding to these cultural issues we also found significant variations between the processes adopted across higher education providers to promote the NTFS and shortlist nominees.

Supporting aspiring NTFS applicants working in professional services

We have launched several initiatives under the In It Together banner to increase awareness of the NTFS scheme, and provide more support for aspiring NTFS applicants from, historically underrepresented applicant groups. The NTFS Allyship scheme enables aspiring applicants to search for NTFS winners from professional services along with other historically underrepresented groups. This has been promoted at the Association for National Teaching Fellows Symposium, Advance HE publications and via professional association newsletters and blogs including the Association for Learning Technology, the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, and the Staff and Educational Development Association.

Advance HE training for TEALs in 2024 will focus further discussion on third space professionals and how to address structural inequalities experienced by those employed on professional service contracts. The Association for National Teaching Fellows and Advance HE co-deliver roadshows to support aspiring applicants. These will include former NTF winners working in the third space and from professional service backgrounds. The Association for National Teaching Fellows Blog is actively seeking to include posts from NTF winners and aspiring NTFs from underrepresented groups.

Deal with the root cause

We recognise that our efforts can only go so far in terms of reducing structural inequalities experienced by teaching and learning practitioners employed on professional service contracts. Now is the time for the Office for Students and HESA to consult with stakeholders and work towards a sector-wide adoption of a more suitable and consistent level of role categorisation befitting those working within higher education in 2024. This should include the introduction of an explicit “third space” role categorisation to facilitate better sector awareness of this group and the consistent recognition and reporting of the growing numbers of higher education professionals working in this capacity.

For as long as dated and oversimplified categorisation remains prevalent there will be a prevailing structural injustice experienced by many teaching and learning practitioners employed on professional service contracts. This is not right and should therefore receive the same prominence and strong response as other structural and social inequalities identified within the higher education sector. It is hoped that this article draws attention to an often overlooked group.

More work is needed to further diversify representativeness amongst NTFS applicants – and we would welcome the support and input of Wonkhe readers. If you would like to get involved in the In It Together working group please contact Steve and Sally.

3 responses to “Traditional HE role classifications create structural inequalities for third space professionals

  1. Part of the root course is well known but not discussed publicly much for obvious reasons. The Advance HE schemes are controlled by a smallish cabal of the same old faces. If you bend the knee, then you have a good chance. Third space professionals don’t get to network in the same way so cannot be recruited and thus will struggle because they don’t realise how it actually works.

    I was astonished when a colleague got an NTF off his thin profile. It all became clear when it turned out his neighbours were part of the assessment process and of course knew what was in their application.

    I was told by various people involved in the scheme, I had no chance and not to bother as I was not respectful enough to the right people.

  2. The fact that we’re 20 years on from when Whitchurch started to address the ‘third space’ and still referring to it as a ‘third space’ and those who work in it as ‘third space professionals’ is testament to how slow the HE sector is to fully adopt change. I agree that HESA should be be seeking to add a new categorisation, but institutions should also be pushing for this kind of change.

  3. As a 3rd space professional who has just finished their Senior Fellowship application on the 2011 descriptors- it was hard work! Glad to see growing conversations around the challenges of working in the space, as well as a positive change in the new framework descriptors.

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