Programme leaders challenging binaries in higher education: Academic vs non-academic?

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Attribution: Jessie1dog ‘I don’t think I belong here’ from Flickr

We are delighted and proud to be involved in the creation of ‘Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in HE: Practical Wisdom for Leaders, Educational Developers and Programme Leaders’ because it recognises the pivotal role of Programme Leaders (PLs)  in higher education. 

It has been noted for some time, and we certainly found in our work with programme leaders, that this group of staff, who work at the junction of pedagogy, academic leadership, and student experience, too often seem to get a raw deal. Given the sheer power of the market forces of student satisfaction and notions of ‘quality’ in the neoliberal academy, it can be hard to see why they are not better valued and celebrated for their incredible impact on the student learning journey.

One possible explanation could come from the direction our work has moved in more recently, which echoes Mackintosh and Nutt’s  work on the integrated practitioner. We have been using Celia Whitchurch’s concept of the ‘third space’ to better articulate the ‘’blurring of the perceived binary division between academic and non-academic roles and activities’’ (2012, 24) and those many tasks involved in programme leadership. Most institutions rely on a straightforward binary division between academic and administrative or support roles, and this hard binary exerts a powerful hold over the professional identities of those of us who work in higher education. Bruce Macfarlane provocatively critiqued the pervasive yet lazy logic of these dualisms, where collegiality is in opposition to managerialism, academic to non-academic and research to teaching. “Dualisms often mask continuums” he notes, referencing Whitchurch’s work as an example of the reality of the many higher education roles, including that of PL, which bridge these divides (2015, 115).

While programme leading is a role which means different things in different institutions it rarely avoids the challenges of leading people involved in academic programmes, without direct management authority, while coping with a large workload of managerial, administrative, and pastoral tasks. For many academics the PL role is their first real introduction to the wide range of academic and non-academic colleagues, from different areas, who are subject to competing demands, but all have an impact on the student body. Their workload, when categorised according to the binaries of academic and non-academic, is often underestimated by both sides, especially when further confused by the competing binary of teaching and/or research role profiles within academic contracts. 

As the expectations of the student experience grow increasingly complex, the PL role grows ever more difficult. To ensure that PLs are given the professional respect and recognition that they deserve, we think that the concept of ‘third space’, which empowers us as educational researchers and developers to articulate our identities, will prove useful in helping others understand the complexity of the PL role.

Authors Dr Maeve O’Dwyer and Rebecca Sanderson are based at the Universities of Trinity College Dublin and Lincoln respectively. They have joined with colleagues to launch a Third Space research group: get in touch at or join us on Twitter @thirdspacer

Inspired by O’Dwyer, M and Sanderson, R (2022)  ‘It can be a lonely job sometimes:The use of collaborative space and social network theory in support of programme leaders’ in Lawrence, J Moron-Garcia, S and Senior, R (2022) Supporting Course and Programme Leaders in HE: Practical wisdom for leaders, educational developers and programme leaders. Routledge: UK

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