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Professional Support Staff at Higher Education Institutions

Navigating Ambiguities in Hybrid Roles

Time: Fri 2020-08-28 13.00

Location: , Stockholm (English)

Subject area: Education and Communication in the Technological Sciences

Doctoral student: Malin Ryttberg , Lärande, Higher Education Organizational Studies (HEOS)

Opponent: Professor Linda Wedlin, Uppsala universitet

Supervisor: Professor Lars Geschwind, Organisation och ledarskap, Lärande; Docent Anders Broström, Centrum för studier inom vetenskap och innovation, CESIS, Nationalekonomi

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This thesis focuses on how professional support staff within the support services at higher education institutions (HEIs) perceive their roles. A combination of the broader expectations on HEIs from the surrounding society, changed ideals for governance and research indicating changed profiles for the roles of these support staff has motivated this research. Staff at HEIs have commonly been described by dividing them into those with academic positions and those with positions designated non-academic in much of the literature. This thesis focuses on a category of support staff who do not describe themselves as administrators, but who do not have academic positions either. Embedded in the roles of this category of staff are tensions in relation to academics. What do these professional support staff do, how are they organised and what does the division of labour in the HEIs look like? The overarching aim of this thesis is to explore how the professional support staff understand their roles with a particular emphasis on their working relationship with academics. The opening chapter provides an overview of the discussion of the roles of professional support staff in previous research. This includes an outline of structural and national features, as well as discursive aspects related to their roles. In addition, the implications of the changing roles of the professional support in relation to academics are discussed. Related to these changes is an inherent increase in their level of expertise in which a high level of discretion is a central feature. This is discussed under the umbrella of theories about professionalism. A complementary theoretical approach is the concept of a third space, which is developed as a tool to explore and understand the roles of both professional support staff and academics, as well as their working relationship. The thesis includes four papers based on interviews with three different professional support staff categories at Swedish HEIs. Their perceptions of their roles have been mapped and analysed from different perspectives. These three categories represent professional support staff with roles related to strategic work at their HEIs. A fifth paper is based on interviews conducted in Norway and the Netherlands, with a focus on professional support staff with management roles and their perceptions of how well-functioning support should be organised. One finding that runs through all five papers is that these professional support staff perceive themselves as back office support staff. They are clear    2  about having support roles and not being decision makers. Another finding is that they describe themselves as having great discretion both in the design of their roles and in the way they organise their work. On the one hand, this discretion is described as a central precondition for the attractiveness of the role. On the other hand, it may also imply some vulnerability concerning their competences. The combination of their closeness to the university leadership team, the tasks related to the HEIs’ strategic work and the fact that they themselves have designed their roles implies that these roles could be described as examples of hybrid forms of professionalism. This is an expression of the coming together of different and potentially contradictory sets of principles, values and logics in the structuring of work in one role. These professional support staff have to navigate between the logics of the governance ideals of the university leadership team and their own claims to expertise. This navigation is played out in a field dominated by the norms and values of academics.