The lived experience of academic staff in a marketised post-1992 university-a case study

Taberner, Andrea M (2020) The lived experience of academic staff in a marketised post-1992 university-a case study. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Concerns have been long expressed in the literature regarding the consequences of the marketisation of universities. Reflecting its positioning within the field of Critical University Studies (CUS), the literature is primarily negative and assumes that the impacts on university academic staff are universally experienced in a particular institution. Based on a case study of a post-1992 university, the purpose of this research is to determine whether the lived experience of all academics is indeed universal or not. Specifically, it sets out to establish whether commonalities and /or variations exist in the experience of academics according to age, gender, length of service, role and contract type. It also seeks to identify how academics believe their experience could be enhanced and, consequently, to propose a targeted applied research response at the local level.

The research adopts a pluralist version of social practice theory. A practice approach enables the interrogation of agency within a particular configuration of practices, facilitating an understanding of what is going on and why and, in particular, addressing the issue of power and the potential for agency within a specific particular assemblage of practices. In this thesis, an adapted model of institutional praxis, academic practitioners and their work practices is utilised to structure the research within the paradigm of pragmatism. Following a sequential mixed and multi-method approach, the research comprised three phases. First, a focus group was employed to identify key themes related to academics’ perceptions of their lived work experiences in a post-1992 university. This informed the design of a subsequent online survey that sought to generate more specific quantitative (descriptive and inferential) data across a wider sample of academics followed, thirdly, by 30 one-hour semi-structured interviews that built on the survey outcomes to elicit in-depth, rich qualitative (thematic) data. Participants, who were identified by non-probability sampling (purposive for the focus group and interviews and self-selection for the online survey), included a wide variety of academics from across the case study institution.

The key empirical findings reveal both commonalities and variations in the lived experience of respondents. Five shared-experience themes emerged: (i) rationalisation of staff and mounting workloads; (ii) standardisation, centralisation and monitoring of all work processes and depersonalised internal communication and work relationships; (iii) poor campus space management; (iv) poor communication between senior management and staff; and (v) lack of investment in a good academic staff experience. Key variations in experience related to length of service (often age related), gender, academic role and contract type. These variables influenced respondents’ perceptions of their daily working lives and practices and of their work-life balance.

Generally, the research reveals that institutional structural praxis (systems, processes, resources, manager practices) drives and influences academic agents and their work practices. Owing to the corporatisation and managerialisation of universities within the macro-environment of neoliberalism, there is a management focus on the neoliberal practices of the rationalisation of resources to maximise institutional profitability via standardisation, staff performativity and surveillance. This was found to conflict and cause tension with academic agents, resulting in their loss of influence locally as professionals and the impoverishment of their core work practices in teaching and research; academics and their practices currently have limited agency and influence on institutional praxis. Nevertheless, the research also suggests that the common concerns of all academics and some of the negatively experienced variations for certain staff categories are fixable, reasonable and relatively cheap to address, requiring first and foremost the enhancement of the academic lived experience at the university by mutually respectful cooperation between staff and managers to achieve competitive advantage for all stakeholders. In this way, the lives of academics at the case study university could be transformed for the better to pave the way to a more humane and democratic place to work where staff can thrive rather than just survive.

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