in which one begins to dig systemic and structural issues into the light, and start conversations on identity and ways of working.


Third Space discussion paper

In my exploration of new directions and uncovering cultural narratives around change, I frequently came up against notions of identity and value, and of being heard. I began to wonder whether the traditional definitions of work in the higher education sector were rendering a large amount of work and many identities invisible, and whether there might be alternatives to better serve us.

The concept of the ‘third space’ in higher education is not a new one - first coined by Whitchurch in 2008, it describes those who work outside of the traditional academic and professional staff dichotomy. This may include professional staff with discipline backgrounds who engage in teaching and/or research activity and perform expert roles not defined as support or management, academic staff who undertake industry engagement or professional development and many other role configurations.

During my career in the learning design space I have seen the third space narrative and identity become increasingly adopted across the sector to describe the work we do and the tensions within our roles. For some it is now strong identity language, for others a more amorphous concept, and still others working in this space aren’t aware of the concept at all. Whatever the level of engagement and identification with the term ‘third space’ or its narratives, though, everyone feels the tensions - we feel it in teaching work that isn’t captured because it’s not student-facing or quantified by EFTSL; we feel it through being denied promotion opportunities either because our contracts are professional or our work as academics doesn’t fit the promotion categories; we feel it in an acute lack of understanding of the nature of our work and the value we bring.

We are also now coming into a higher education landscape that is increasingly more reliant on third space roles, and recruitment in this area has increased markedly. Third space expertise will be instrumental to the transformation of the higher education sector - as Kogan and Tiechler note,

“[academic staff] are professionals in academic matters, but amateurs in matters of shaping the university and a new group of experts are amateurs in academic matters but professionals in shaping the university” (2007: 14).

It seems remiss of us, then, to continue to fail to capture and celebrate the work of those who fall outside of the academic and professional dichotomy, whose work is not articulated in workplace narratives or in enterprise agreements. To this end, I wrote a discussion paper to begin to bring these issues to light - to introduce the concept and literature to those who may be unfamiliar, to create an identity space for those who feel their work resonates here, and to highlight the issues faced, both from a cultural viewpoint and a HR/enterprise agreement perspective.

As a means of discovering possible solutions and co-creating new ways of doing and being, I turned to Whitney and Trosten-Bloom’s (2003) change methodology of appreciative inquiry - a structured and inclusive process to navigate change. I proposed holding an Appreciative Inquiry Summit - a day-long event where all third space-identified staff at UNE can come together and engage deeply in the narratives and issues, then begin to co-create new possibilities.

This was then gathered up into other conversations and an external sector-wide conference on Change and the Third Space was proposed in addition to the summit, due to the current lack of conference and community of practice opportunities specifically focused on the third space (rather than profession-focused communities that happen to have a third space nature, such as Ascilite and STARS). We now have tentative working parties/committees established for both of these events, to be run in 2019.


Kogan, M. and Teichler, U. (2007). Key Challenges to the Academic Profession.[]/?t2000=024165/(100)

Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting identities and blurring boundaries : the emergence of Third Space professionals in UK higher education. Higher Education Quarterly , 62 (4) pp. 377-396.

Whitney, D and Trosten-Bloom, A. (2003). The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler