Category Archives: management

Thoughts on: Academic developers as change agents: Caught in the Middle (Hicks, 2005)

Maybe it’s just a happy coincidence but I picked up a paper that I’d made a note to read in full after skimming it a while back¬†and I don’t think I could’ve found something that aligned more with the questions that I asked myself in my post here about values vs value and the way that edvisors sit between teachers and the institution.

Hicks, who leads an academic development unit in an Australian university, delves deep into this issue of the two masters that academic developers serve – the institution and the academics/teachers. As far as I can make out, she uses the relatively well established definition of academic developers as people providing professional development training to academics. She references Nunan, George and McCausland to specify that this is

directed towards both inducing change towards institutional directions and working with teachers in areas of change that they initiate in their local contexts (Nunan, George & McCausland, 2000 p.85) (p.176)

I have to assume that the “they” in “they initiate” refers to the teachers, though it could be read as the academic developers as well. Teachers kind of makes more sense.

She ran a handful of focus groups with a small sample of academic developers – it’s not apparent whether it was at her own institution or not, which seems significant because even if you made it clear that you’re wearing a researcher hat, I would suspect that this would potentially inhibit completely open discussion. But then, I don’t know what kind of relationship she had/has with her team.

What emerges from these focus groups is that the space occupied by academic developers sees them torn between supporting the implementation of change that comes down from “management” and trying to serve the needs and interests of teachers/academics in their own practices. Despite numerous references to management, it’s not explicitly stated whether this is at a Chancellery level, with policy direction coming from former academics at the top of the university tree or “professional” management. Probably both although, again, I’d suggest that the professional management side has little to nothing to do with educational policy and few institutions would accept them trying to dictate the kind of behaviour that academic developers are tasked with embedding.

Hicks draws heavily from the ideas of Bourdieu to frame this conflict in terms of power relationships and this works for me for the most part, as navigating these is a pretty substantial factor in this kind of work. It was a little bit of a shame though that they didn’t really lead to any particularly meaningful conclusions

If universities are to get the most out of their academic development function in times of change, then these tensions need to be recognised, understood and dealt with in a way that takes account of all perspectives – management, academic staff and academic developers (p.182)

I certainly agree that this isn’t the most useful state of affairs but ‘something really should be done by someone’ doesn’t offer much in the way of a direction forwards. She does state that this is part of a broader research project, so I guess I’ll explore this for further clues. This should also not be taken to say that this isn’t a valuable paper – it lays out very clearly the issue and makes solid use of transcripts from the focus groups to highlight the voice of the academic developers.

There were a few other questions though that I felt went begging somewhat. It wasn’t explained whether the academic developers were in professional or academic roles (or came from academic roles), which I think makes a difference in the way that they are perceived by academic staff (and presumably also by management.) The lack of clarity about who management is I think is also a missing piece. I agree that being a change agent with a sometimes excessive focus on compliance can be a substantial part of the role (although if you want to talk about being the compliance police, look more at the VET sector) but I think we’re missing the continuity part of this role. The support of current, successful practices that are largely independent of change. In fairness, this wasn’t the thrust of the argument and it is the change aspects that bring the tensions between ‘management’ and academics into sharp relief.

There were also some great references for me to pursue – Land has been recommended before but it was particularly interesting to see that Land (2001) has

identified twelve different orientations to the practice of academic development (p.176)

A final question that came to mind, which once more seems to come back to my favourite paper of recent times by Brew et al (2017) about academic resistance to university initiatives, is exactly why there is so much conflict about change between academics and management. Is it that management is pushing clearly bad policy (not impossible) or that academics just don’t see the personal benefits of it (also feasible). Presumably a far more complex mess than either of these but one which could help take some of these ideas a little further.